What you need to know about Georgia's new transportation bill

Gov. Nathan Deal signed a measure into law Monday that will bring in about $1 billion a year for transportation needs across Georgia.

Here are a few things you should know about the bill:

1. It won't put you in the fast lane. The new revenue that House Bill 170 will raise isn't enough to build new rail lines or large-scale highway improvements, and it won't raise funds for mass transit. Instead, you'll start to see more work on the state's mounting backlog of maintenance projects. That means more freshly-repaved roads, filled-in potholes and shored-up bridges. Some money could be left over for new construction, though, giving the Department of Transportation more flexibility and options in how it manages its programs.

2. Your taxes are going up. The new law lifts the gas tax for the average driver by about 6 cents a gallon. It also imposes a new $5 per-night fee on hotel stays. Drivers of electric vehicles would now pay a $200 annual fee ($300 if they're commercial vehicles) and no longer receive a lucrative tax break. And heavy trucks will also face a $50-$100 annual fee.

3. It wasn't easy to get this far. Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston all united behind call for more transportation revenue, even though it meant bucking anti-tax pledges. It took solid support from Democrats and many rank-and-file Republicans, who voted for the tax hike despite threats of primary challenges, to get it across the finish line.

4. Some say it's still not enough. Transportation analysts said the $1 billion mark was the minimum needed to start bringing the infrastructure network up to level. But one study found that to expand transit and widen busy interstate highways would cost almost $3 billion a year. A total overhaul that includes establishing speedy new passenger rail systems would top $4 billion.

5. Others say it's far too much. The Republican supporters of the new law faced unrelenting attacks from tea party members and fiscal conservatives. Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader, urged his supporters to flood Georgia GOP leaders with their concerns. State Rep. Regina Quick called it a "tax first approach to problem solving." State Sen. Bill Heath proclaimed it "the largest tax increase in Georgia's history."

6. It won't reach $1 billion immediately. Initial estimates from the Office of Budget and Planning indicate that collections in fiscal year 2016 will total about $870 million, a total that’s projected to reach $1.2 billion by 2020. The projected five-year average for the new revenue tops $1.07 billion, though much will depend on fuel prices and hotel occupancy rates.

7. It paves the way for more transportation revenue. The law includes a feature that allows counties - either alone or in groups - to ask voters to approve up to a 1 percent sales tax hike for projects closer to home without first going through the Legislature. Fulton County Chairman John Eaves has already suggested he wants his constituents to vote on a 1 percent sales tax hike.

8. Don't expect major changes to the law. Already there's a move afoot to revisit some of the measure's toughest sells. A leading critic of the electronic vehicle tax break has said he’s willing to entertain potential changes next year. Delta Air Lines could try to restore tax breaks eliminated in the law. And the hospitality industry, blindsided by the new $5 fees, is mounting a behind-the-scenes campaign to soften the blow. But Deal has also said he doesn't want a replay of the nasty debate next year. "This was the one bite at the apple."

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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