UPDATE (5/25/22): TSPLOST 2023 passed with 67.8% of the vote.
On May 24, Athens voters can choose to improve safety on our roads, reduce carbon emissions, expand our trail and sidewalk network, build covered bus stops, repave more streets sooner and make Athens Transit free for everyone for five years. By voting YES on TSPLOST, we can do all of this and more without a tax increase through a transparent, democratic process that empowers neighborhoods.
“TSPLOST” is an acronym that stands for Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. It’s a 1% tax on everything Athens residents buy, both in Athens and online. It’s been in place since 2017 when voters chose to fund transportation infrastructure with this sales tax by an enormous margin, nearly 3-1. This year, we’re being asked if we want to continue the tax for another five years to fund a new set of projects.
Even those who voted NO last time probably agree that more funding for transportation is needed in Athens. We’ve all seen people walking in the ditch beside Lexington Road, biking on a busy Atlanta Highway or crossing Broad Street in a way that seems unsafe. Sometimes we may have even done these things ourselves, despite how uncomfortable it was. If it scared you, know that you were right to feel afraid – these roads are very dangerous for walkers, bikers and car drivers and the problem only seems to get worse. 25 people died in traffic in 2021, a new record for Athens.
Images provided by Bike Athens and Teresa Friedlander via the TSPLOST 2023 Advisory Committee.
Athens’ transportation infrastructure is desperately in need of investment, without which our roads will fall into disrepair, bridges may fail and people in the prime of life will continue to be struck down in traffic needlessly. We all know we have to fund transportation in a significant way sooner or later. What you may not know is that the sooner we invest, the faster we’ll see a return, both in terms of dollars saved but also people’s lives.
The question on our ballots isn’t if we should fund transportation, but how we’d like to invest and in which projects.
Let’s start with the projects – what will we get for our money if we vote YES?
TSPLOST projects, past and present
If you’re wondering what TSPLOST has done for our community over the past five years, you can have a look at the project list from 2018.
Transportation projects take years to complete, but TSPLOST 2018 has already allowed us to purchase hybrid buses for Athens Transit, create a new transit route along US-29, extend the Greenway and the Firefly Trails, pave many roads and make many other small improvements throughout the county.
Big projects still in the works include a new Tallassee Road bridge, a roundabout at West Broad and Hancock Avenue, improvements for Atlanta highway, Lexington Road and Prince Avenue and finally more road repaving and trail extensions, including a bridge over Trail Creek at the site of the former “Murmur” trestle.
If approved by voters, TSPLOST 2023 will continue this work. It will fund sidewalks along Lexington Road, electric buses for Athens Transit, fare-free transit for five years, Greenway connectors, the extension of the Firefly Trail to Winterville, traffic safety improvements, pavement and stormwater maintenance, sidewalks in Stonehenge and Westchester, covered bus stops, street lights for east Athens and many more important projects.
How were these projects decided?
A 22-member TSPLOST advisory committee, appointed by the mayor and commission, met almost two dozen times from August to December last year to review project submissions and decide on their recommended list. After many lengthy discussions which were recorded and uploaded to YouTube, the advisory committee whittled down the list of projects to only those which they felt were the most needed, with an eye towards investing in parts of the community that have been historically overlooked.
The final list, as approved by the mayor and commission, largely kept true to the recommendations of the advisory committee. The list includes a record number of resident-submitted projects for neighborhoods across Athens, such as for historically-Black neighborhoods in east, north and west Athens, far more than in any previous SPLOST.
People in these neighborhoods know better than anyone what transportation projects would help them the best. TSPLOST 2023 will allow their needs to be funded by helping the projects they submitted to become reality.
Can we trust the local government to spend TSPLOST money on these projects and not on something else?
Yes. In fact, it would be illegal for them to spend TSPLOST money on something that is not on the TSPLOST project list.
Every penny of SPLOST and TSPLOST money is accounted for by the SPLOST office. Furthermore, some members of the advisory committee will stay on as an oversight committee to ensure that TSPLOST 2023 dollars are spent appropriately in the years to come.
Sometimes, SPLOST budgets are slightly modified as projects inevitably come in over or under estimates. And sometimes the needs of the community change and the project concepts also need to be modified. Whenever changes to SPLOST projects are needed, they are approved by the same Athens residents who created the project list in the first place.
Every change is documented and available for public viewing on splost.com, as are the project budgets and estimated completion timelines.
Overall, the TSPLOST process is transparent and democratic. It empowers neighborhoods across Athens to decide for themselves how their transportation needs are best fulfilled. But it’s not perfect. Admittedly, the local government’s bureaucracy is sometimes inflexible and not user-friendly. For example, the TSPLOST project application form is extremely cumbersome and intimidating to anyone who isn’t an expert in civil engineering. Hopefully, this will be improved for next time to make it easier for regular people to have a say in their transportation future.
Sounds great, but why a sales tax? Aren’t sales taxes regressive?
TSPLOST projects are incredibly important for public safety, to help us reach our clean energy goals and to keep our streets paved and protected from the flooding that otherwise would be caused by thunderstorms. But why are these necessary projects funded by a sales tax and not by a large increase in property taxes? Aren’t sales taxes regressive?
Yes, unfortunately they are.
By definition, sales taxes place a higher burden on low-income people than they do rich or middle-class Athenians because the poor spend a higher proportion of their income. In fact, a low-income Athenian might be taxed by TSPLOST on nearly all of their disposable income since they spend everything they earn. A middle-class person, on the other hand, pays comparatively less in TSPLOST taxes relative to their total income because they are more likely to travel out of the county. They’re also more likely to save for retirement. Money spent traveling outside of Athens or saved for the future isn’t taxed by TSPLOST (or by any Athens sales tax for that matter).
So, yes, sales taxes are regressive, but our analysis shouldn’t end there. Before we condemn sales taxes as harmful to those of low incomes in Athens, there are two major parts to this story we’ve yet to consider – first, the way UGA distorts our tax base and second, the state legislature’s aversion to all taxes, particularly progressive ones.
The University of Georgia distorts Athens’ tax base
Let’s face it, Athens just wouldn’t be Athens without UGA and the Georgia Bulldogs. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the prominence of the university greatly affects our tax base in two major ways – UGA decreases the revenue we gain from property taxes (because Athens doesn’t have the legal authority to tax a state institution) while at the same time greatly increasing the revenue we gain from sales taxes (because UGA students spend a lot of money in local shops).
It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, property taxes in Athens fall more heavily on a relatively small number of people, considering our size, due to UGA’s tax-exempt status. On the other hand, sales taxes are so much gentler on permanent residents here than they’d be in other cities – we only pay about half of those taxes ourselves, with the other half being shouldered by UGA students and other visitors.
If you’re poor in Athens, would you rather pay 50% of a more regressive sales tax, or 100%* of a less regressive property tax? That’s tough to answer! Since property taxes may very well impact rents in Athens, we can only guess at how burdensome these taxes really are for people in different income brackets and in different life situations.
(*Admittedly, some out-of-town landlords also pay property tax here. But my main point is that I don’t know what the real numbers are, and I’m not sure anyone else does either.)
The only way to find out may be with an economic study, but I’m not sure one has ever been done on this subject in Athens. My impression is that it may be safest to spread out the burden as much as possible between the two different taxes, as we have been doing, so no one group of residents is hit overly hard.
The state legislature doesn’t like progressive taxes
Whichever tax is worse, it seems we’re stuck with choosing between two bad options. That’s because we can’t tax progressively in this city; the Georgia Legislature has actually made it illegal.
County income taxes, for example, are not allowed in Georgia. We also don’t have the option to implement a more progressive property tax quite yet – that option is up for a vote this November (although this may not be a good idea, but that’s another story).
Believe me, I’d love to target the rich to pay taxes instead of the poor and middle-class. But as of right now, it can’t really be done in Athens. The state legislature is generally made up of people who are either rich or who represent the rich (with some exceptions), and let’s face it – they don’t want to be taxed. Until that changes, sales taxes are the main tool we have to get money from UGA students (or actually their parents, who are sometimes quite wealthy) and other visitors.
SPLOST and TSPLOST aren’t perfect tools, but they’re perhaps the best we’ve got for the time being.
As long as the money is spent equitably on projects that not only benefit all of Athens but also help to make up for past inequities, progressives should not hesitate to make use of this funding method, given our lack of other options. If we refused to make use of regressive taxes, that would essentially mean cutting taxes across the board because all of our options are probably regressive! Would we cut local government down to the bare essentials and have it completely abandon its responsibility to push for social justice and fight against climate change?
By voting YES on TSPLOST, you will be voting YES to improved public safety, YES to reducing carbon emissions, YES to expanding our transportation network and YES to neighborhood empowerment.
Vote YES on May 24! You can also vote early until May 20.