Defunding Mass Transit is Not Good for the Tea Party, Whatever They May Think





8-13-12

Tammy Ingram is an assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston. She is currently writing a book about the Dixie Highway.


MARTA train in Atlanta, Georgia. Credit: Wikipedia

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s July 31st headline, “Tea Party notches a big win in T-SPLOST loss,” credits the conservative group with the defeat of a ten-year, one-cent sales tax that would have raised an estimated $7.2 billion ($8.5 billion after inflation) for transportation initiatives in metro Atlanta. The article does a better job of inflaming election-year divisions, however, than explaining the reasons behind the failure of the transportation tax.

In many ways, the debates over T-SPLOST (a clumsy acronym for the even more clumsily-titled Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) in Atlanta echo transportation debates in cities all over the country. Urban and suburban residents alike are interested in better transportation options but, wary of the financial, environmental, and demographic consequences of building them, are gridlocked in debate. Highway advocates and transportation pundits have proposed sales taxes, tolls, private investment, and recently (and humorously) even magic to fund new highways, but no single solution satisfies everyone because people cannot agree, in the first place, when, where, or whether new highways should be built.

Often, debates over transportation initiatives of all kinds end in defeat. Residents of the small town of Golden, Colorado have repelled efforts to close the beltway around Denver in order to ward off urban sprawl. And for the past sixteen years, residents of Charleston, South Carolina have battled one another to a standstill over plans to complete the Interstate 526 beltway around that city. Efforts to extend subway service through exclusive neighborhoods have provoked disputes in Los Angeles, while massive cuts to bus service there have deepened divisions along racial and class lines. Since the 2008 election, Tea Party activists have trained their sights on high-priced transportation initiatives of all kinds. Earlier this year, their influence shaped rancorous Congressional debates over a new federal transportation bill to replace the one that expired in 2009. The $120 billion package that finally passed on June 29, on the 56th anniversary of the much-celebrated Eisenhower interstate bill of 1956, pleased no one. A representative for the fiscal watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense denounced the bill as “a massive Treasury bailout of the transportation system.” Even the congressmen who voted for it were not entirely satisfied. “It is what it is,” remarked one of the bill’s senior negotiators.

Taken collectively, these examples serve as a reminder that our crumbling transportation infrastructure is an expensive and controversial national crisis. Yet the debates themselves underscore the intensely local nature of transportation politics. In many ways, it is impossible to get politics out of the roads and it has been for nearly a century. Since the introduction of the automobile created the demand for modern road construction a hundred years ago, political infighting has defined debates over transportation. What today is a conflict between city and suburban folks over roads versus rails was once a contentious battle between urban dwellers and rural farmers over highway construction, and one that exploded every bit as intensely as it has today.

Then, as now, it was especially conspicuous in the South, where local resources could not keep pace with rapidly changing demographics. A century ago, when Georgians faced a similar transportation crisis, they also locked horns over competing local interests. In 1914, as the automobile craze took hold of the nation, a Midwestern automobile entrepreneur named Carl Graham Fisher proposed building a modern interstate highway from Chicago to Miami Beach, passing through the center of Georgia. One of several proposed “auto trails” of the day, the Dixie Highway was a novel idea that generated as much tension as excitement.

Yet at the turn of the twentieth century, railroads, not highways, dominated long distance travel. Roads were entirely local in scope and funding. Southern states like Georgia did not have state highway commissions, gasoline taxes, or other sources of funding, so local taxes alone supported road work. The minimum cost of building a mile of dirt road in 1914 was $1000 -- and hard surfacing cost several times as much -- but the average rural county in Georgia had only $300-600 to spend. Urban and rural areas had little incentive to cooperate on shared roads and instead poured all of their resources into maintaining local roads, most of which fed farm traffic to depots and nowhere else.

These localized systems exacerbated divisions between urban areas like Atlanta, whose denser population and higher tax revenues could pay for good roads, and neighboring rural counties, where farmers frequently complained about the “mud tax” that gobbled up countless dollars in lost time and spoiled crops. Both groups supported roads, but for a long time they could not agree on how and where to build them. Urban automobilists wanted touring roads into the countryside, but farmers refused to pay for what they derisively called “peacock alleys” for city slickers. City folks, who already paid for their own streets, did not consider it their responsibility to also build roads for farmers.

With little cooperation between urban and rural voters, figuring out how and where to build the Dixie Highway in Georgia proved difficult. Atlanta, with numerous hotels, restaurants, and gas stations, stood to gain considerably from the tourist traffic. In rural areas, where roads needed the most work and counties had the least money, the Dixie Highway would link farmers to more distant markets but generate less income. Yet Dixie Highway organizers worked tirelessly to persuade rural and urban residents to cooperate on the highway, arguing that modern roads served everyone, even if not always in equal amounts.

They were partially successful, but only significant developments in federal highway aid after 1916, coupled with new state gasoline taxes in the early 1920s, enabled Georgia to complete its portion of the Dixie Highway. But continued infighting over local interests and concerns about the state’s role in transportation projects slowed progress on major highways and stalled transportation initiatives through the postwar period, when the economic boom and the Eisenhower interstate system prompted a new flurry of highway construction. That very system would eventually absorb the Dixie Highway and help to fuel an era of unprecedented economic expansion. Today, it is falling apart.

The divisions that shaped the conversation over transportation a century ago remain at the heart of transportation debates today. The proposed T-SPLOST solution to metro Atlanta’s traffic bottleneck was sharply divided along suburban and urban lines. The interests of suburban commuters and regular users of mass transit could not find room for cooperation. The NAACP opposed the bill because it did too little to resolve transportation problems in majority-African American neighborhoods. Environmental groups wanted rails before roads and argued that new freeway lanes converted too much greenspace to asphalt. Other supporters of mass transit thought the T-SPLOST plan did not set aside enough money for new rail and bus lines, while suburban commuters claimed the bill set aside too much money for the city’s mass transit system (MARTA) and balked at the prospect of paying taxes for trains and buses they rarely, if ever, used.

Transportation needs in urban centers like Atlanta, where many residents rely primarily on mass transit, bike lanes, or sidewalks, are vastly different from those in suburbs, where most commuters depend on cars and highways, but such regional differences are not new. Yet voters and political leaders alike have amplified longstanding divisions by proposing solutions that advocate one set of priorities over another and by failing to think past their own community’s immediate needs. Certainly not every proposed solution to the national transportation crisis is unambiguously beneficial -- even the earliest modern interstates like the Dixie Highway had serious environmental and socioeconomic consequences that deserve serious consideration. But then, as now, localized disputes have impeded the creation of a regional and national transportation infrastructure that not only addresses current needs but remains flexible enough to adapt to future demands.

Much has changed since 1914, but the urban-rural divisions that hamstrung the Dixie Highway in Georgia have been replaced in metro Atlanta and elsewhere by urban-suburban divisions that are no less ruinous. The defeat of the T-SPLOST in Atlanta, like the failures of similar bills nationwide, is not so much a victory for the Tea Party’s ideologically driven opposition to new taxation as it is indicative of the failure of political leaders and voters to collaborate more effectively on a very real transportation crisis that affects urban users of mass transit and suburban commuters, alike.


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