First, why isn’t anyone talking about the name? TSPLOST. It sounds like one of those nonsense words my two-year-old son says after he licks the icing off a cupcake. Don’t you wonder about the bureaucrats who dream up these acronyms? Seriously, where do they come up with this? It stands, by the way, for Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which is an inexcusable euphemism for “You’ll be paying more.” Supporters of the July 31 vote—which will determine whether we add another 1 percent to our sales tax to fund $6 billion worth of transportation projects—are worried about turnout, since there’s nothing else on the ballot, it’s the middle of summer, and really, wouldn’t we rather be watching the Olympics? I think there should be a second question on the ballot: “Should Georgia lawmakers henceforth be forever banned from using the word SPLOST, on pain of death?” Voters would queue for hours.
Vomitous jargon aside, we have been told this is do-or-die for the region, whose reputation as the poster child for gridlock is now fixed in the national consciousness. (Ask anyone visiting from New York. Or Chicago. Or any city with mass transit that goes where its users need to go.) The PR campaign, for and against, is now at full throttle. Proponents say the Transportation Investment Act (TIA sounds positively lyrical next to TSPLOST) is our “Big Dig” moment, to evoke Boston’s massive undertaking. Unlike the Big Dig, however, our TIA is a list of dozens of localized projects. Presumably these would add up to something transformative for our region, but unfortunately the lack of any one Big Dig–scale project (except possibly for the BeltLine) leaves the impression that the TIA is nothing more than a bunch of little pork projects. I say unfortunately because I am, despite some serious misgivings, going to vote yes on July 31.
What are the misgivings? Sierra Club came out opposed to the TIA, saying essentially that it wouldn’t do enough, that it’s too much of a hodgepodge, that there’s too much for roads, that there’s no “cohesive” vision. I find these objections absurd. We live in a metro area whose citizenry rails against big government, and yet we tolerate dozens of governments (there are sixty-nine cities in the ten-county region directly affected by this vote), gorged with politicians whose first priority is protecting their fiefdoms. Until we have some consolidated government in this region, any cohesive vision is a pipe dream. The perfect should not be the enemy of the good.
I’ve also heard the argument that if voters strike down the measure, gridlock may, paradoxically, improve. How? By continuing the status quo, the situation will get so bad that more of us will move closer to the city center, creating the density we so desperately need. That argument brings to mind that Vietnam expression about destroying the village in order to save it. Doing nothing and letting a sort of natural selection take hold seems, to me, to be courting disaster.
So I’ll vote yes on July 31, albeit reluctantly. Many of us will find it hard to swallow another 1 percent sales tax (a regressive tax if ever there was one), but this is a definitional moment for Atlanta. Who are we, and who do we want to be?