July 30, 2012

TSPLOST: Vote for It Anyway

By Summey Orr
Managing Partner, Hartman Simons

Summey OrrTomorrow, on July 31, the Atlanta metro area is set to vote on a one-cent sales tax, known as TSPLOST, for the purpose of improving our region-wide traffic funk. Everybody who is anybody in the Atlanta area has weighed in on the pros and cons. So, what’s the answer? 

I like the idea. I just hate the way it’s been presented to me. For example:

The Name. TSPLOST. Ugh — I’m not sure who the acronymologist was who came up with this name, but you’re fired. Names matter, especially when you want someone to buy what you’re selling. For example, ever had anyone offer you a Sex on the Beach? It’s a liquor shot, made of cranberry juice, orange juice and vodka. It tastes just okay, and that assumes you like juice. But the name is awesome. If somebody offers you a Sex on the Beach, you’ll accept. Its name makes it alluring. TSPLOST? Not so much.

The Threat. One of the common themes of the TSPLOST supporters is, “if we don’t vote for this, businesses will relocate to our competitor cities – Charlotte, or Dallas!” Please. Nobody likes geographical arrogance, but let’s face it – this is Atlanta. Whatever traffic we have is a result of the fact that people want to be here. If you want your home office in a city where the lead story in the newspaper every day – not just the lead sports story, the lead news story – relates to this week’s NASCAR race, you’ll love Charlotte. Take I-85 North, and we’ll miss you. 

Correspondingly, if your company would rather operate in a city with no trees, no hills and an average daily temperature of 130 degrees, Southwest flies to Dallas and, as luck would have it, your bags will fly for free. For the rest of us who prefer to be where it’s at, it’s Atlanta. It’s a great place, it’s just not perfect.

The Attitude. Maybe it’s just me, but the supporters of the TSPLOST plan seem to come across with a “you better vote for this, or else!” attitude. I don’t know if these folks read much history, but Southerners aren’t big on being told what to do. That’s true even if we know we should do as we’re being told. We are people who will print an email, if only because the email tells us not to. Asking nicely tends to work better here.

 Now in fairness, I don’t like the presentation of the other side, either. Their primary arguments are:

The Economy. “We can’t afford another tax!” Well, great news, you’re in luck. Because unlike most taxes, this one gives you absolute control over how much you pay. Don’t want to pay this tax? Easy. DON’T BUY ANYTHING. Well, not around here, anyway. Think about it – this tax could create a new cultural phenomenon. Instead of keeping up with the Joneses, you can now mock and ridicule the Joneses! That shiny new Escalade they just bought?  Sure, it’s a little more impressive than your 1974 AMC Pacer, but old man Jones is paying for your new off-ramp, and you aren’t.

Let’s Wait For Something Better. Thankfully, my wife abandoned that strategy in 1987, or else I’d still be a bachelor. Clearly, she could have done better; as for the Atlanta area voters, I’m not so sure. We have a lot of diverse interests and ideas, and a lot of people (hence the traffic) in this region, and I’m skeptical about a strategy that says “try again in a few years.” If you don’t like this plan, five bucks says you won’t like the next plan, either. Plus, if you don’t have a problem with waiting, you might not have the ideal mindset to tackle a traffic problem that is all about whittling down the time we spend waiting.  

All that said, I’m voting for TSPLOST. To me, it’s simple. TSPLOST isn’t perfect, but it’s something. A lot of people — pretty smart people who care about this city, this region and this state — have put a lot of thought and energy into this plan, and it’s something. A lawyer I once worked for had a simple strategy when things weren’t like he wanted them: “Do something. If that doesn’t work, well, then do something else. But don’t just sit there complaining that things aren’t good enough. Do something.”

I don’t love every part of the TSPLOST plan, but it’s something. It can’t hurt, it will probably help and it could help a great deal. If it doesn’t work, we’ll do something else. The money we will be asked to wager on this isn’t much, with potential for a big payoff. I’m willing to take that gamble.

On July 31, I hope you’ll join me in doing something.

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