Chamber backs big boost in transportation spending

Georgia needs a dramatic boost in transportation spending to remain competitive with rival states, Metro Atlanta Chamber leaders said Tuesday at the organization’s annual meeting.

A study by the metro region’s biggest business organization pegged the need at $1.5 billion in additional annual outlays on transportation.

The chamber plans to make transportation its No. 1 issue in the upcoming legislative session, which starts next month.

Larry Gellerstedt, Cousins Properties CEO and incoming chamber chairman, told top business leaders the cost of not making such investments “is much, much more.” Inaction could mean lost jobs and opportunities to rivals such as Houston and Dallas, he said at the meeting.

The state spends about $2 billion a year on transportation, but that does not include spending by local jurisdictions or transit agencies such as MARTA.

A panel of lawmakers and business leaders has spent months studying ways to add $1 billion or more per year to pay for a backlog of infrastructure fixes and new transportation projects. Chamber President and CEO Hala Moddelmog was on that panel.

Ideas such as raising fuel taxes or making sure all four pennies of the state’s fuel tax go to transportation are among the proposals floated as possible revenue generators. A possible second try at a special transportation sales tax — which failed miserably in metro Atlanta despite heavy chamber support in 2012 — also will likely be considered.

“If that means raising taxes to fund our roads, it means we have to raise taxes to fund our roads,” said Richard Anderson, outgoing chamber chairman and CEO of Delta Air Lines, which benefits from a state tax break on jet fuel purchases.

Before the meeting, Moddelmog and Gellerstedt said finding ways to boost transit funding must be part of the equation.

Gellerstedt said the average metro Atlanta household spends about $100 a month each on water and cable services, but only about $7 a month on fuel taxes.

The chamber plans to push other initiatives including improvements to education and ensuring that Georgia is welcoming to millennials, innovators, immigrants and gays and lesbians. These issues and transportation are top-of-mind among companies looking to relocate or expand here, Anderson said.

“We have to answer these questions in a bold way,” Anderson said. “We can’t be chicken about it.”

Anderson’s airline recently backed President Barack Obama’s immigration plans. Delta also was among the state’s biggest companies that worked with the chamber last year to kill state legislation that opponents said would allow companies to discriminate against gays and lesbians based on religious freedom.

Anderson said maintaining Georgia’s position as a top state to do business isn’t enough. The state must be welcoming for foreign executives and workers and for minorities because that will help Georgia compete for and create jobs in the years ahead, he said.

“If that means we need to stand up to a legislature that wants to treat gays and lesbians in a different way, we have to stand up to that,” he said.

Moddelmog said the organization also will push for a new marketing campaign to sell Atlanta to major corporations, young people and entrepreneurs as a global hub for innovation. The program, which includes the hashtag #ImaginationHub, pitches the region as the place where established Fortune 500 corporations, hot startup companies and new ideas collide.

“We want Atlanta to be known as the place where ideas from anyone and anywhere can take flight,” she said.

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