Georgia legislators pursue a transportation “Plan B”

Following voters’ resounding defeat of a regional transportation sales tax in 2012, chastened state lawmakers have been leery of proposing any sweeping solutions to address Georgia’s traffic woes.

But fears that Georgia is falling further and further behind on making transportation upgrades that attract jobs have finally set in motion work on a “Plan B.” That work will start in earnest Tuesday, when a legislative study committee meets for the first time to come up with a long-term plan to maintain and expand the state’s network of roads, bridges and transit systems.

Following a series of meetings between now and the end of October, the committee is expected to make recommendations in November. The recommendations will likely be a springboard for legislation for the 2015 session of the General Assembly starting in January.

Georgia ranks second-to-last among the states in per capita spending on transportation and sets aside very little funding for mass transit. As every metro Atlanta commuter knows, congestion on the region’s interstates and surface streets seems to worsen with each passing day.

“What we’re really talking about is economic development and jobs,” said Michael Sullivan, president of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Georgia and chairman of the Georgia Transportation Alliance, who will speak to the committee. “It’s Georgia’s opportunity to be competitive against neighboring states. And probably one of the biggest challenges we face when we are trying to attract new employers to Georgia is traffic congestion in metro Atlanta.”

Georgia relies on the federal government for about two-thirds of the money it spends on road and bridge construction projects. Yet federal funding has become increasingly uncertain as Congress has failed to pass a long-term transportation funding bill.

One idea to generate more in-state revenue for transportation projects is to claw back the fourth penny of Georgia’s 4-cents-per-gallon motor fuel sales tax. That penny adds up to about $180 million a year, but it currently goes into the general fund to be spent elsewhere.

The proposed switch is popular with conservatives.

“The fourth penny is an obvious one we all want to talk about,” said state Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Blue Ridge, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee and is co-chair of the study committee. “We want to see what the impact would be to our state budget if we roll that back into transportation like we think it should be.”

That’s one reason why the appropriations chairmen for the state House and Senate are on the study committee, Gooch said.

Another avenue lawmakers will explore is giving counties more flexibility to raise a local sales tax to fund transportation. For example, letting two or more counties join forces to pass a transportation sales tax for specific projects they consider a priority. Lawmakers have also proposed allowing counties to pass a transportation sales tax that is a fraction of a cent per dollar rather than a whole penny.

The committee will look at ideas that other states are trying, too, said state Rep. Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, who co-chairs the study committee and heads the House Transportation committee.

For example, Virginia nixed its state gas tax at the pump and replaced it with a wholesale tax of 3.5 percent on gasoline and 6 percent on diesel, along with an increase in the state’s general sales tax.

Oregon still collects a gas tax, but it’s moving toward a system where residents pay a “road user charge” based on the number of miles they drive.

State lawmakers will probably endorse several options to raise transportation funds rather than backing a single solution. That was one of the complaints about the failed regional transportation sales tax (or T-SPLOST), said former state Rep. Ed Lindsey of Buckhead, a civilian appointee to the study committee.

Some, like Gooch, say highways and bridges must be the focus of the state’s funding efforts. Others, like Lindsey, say funding for mass transportation needs to be in the mix, too.

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who will speak to the committee Tuesday, said state leaders should strive to fund both.

“Georgians are experiencing a great deal of congestion,” LaHood said. “And I think the leaders really have to look at the idea that in order to relieve congestion, you have to provide many different modes of transportation.”

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