Concern shows about roads, funding

For the first time since metro Atlanta's $7 billion transportation sales tax referendum failed, Georgia and metro Atlanta's elected leaders met Thursday to talk transportation. In two separate meetings they expressed concern over who'll choose the projects and how, and how little money there is compared to needs.

In meetings at the Atlanta Regional Commission and the state Capitol, elected officials treaded gently around the big subject, Gov. Nathan Deal's statement after the vote that he would consolidate control over transportation planning.

The Atlanta Regional Commission, composed of mayors and county commission chairmen, is charged with picking projects, and the governor's announcement has quickened some pulses there.

"We've all read the papers and know certain projects are being mentioned," Jane Hayse, the ARC's transportation planning chief, told local officials there Thursday. "And we just need to work with the state to figure out how all of this is going to be accommodated."

The obvious question is whether the Ga. 400 projects will be accelerated without finding new money, and if they are, what other projects will pay the price to make way for them.

Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd asked why the Ga. 400/I-285 projects would suddenly be worthy of faster funding. He said there are good possible reasons, but ARC needed to be sure it wasn't political.

"If we're going to redirect funds for some reason, then I think we all need to understand why that's being done," Floyd said.

In light of dwindling money, there's also a question of what projects get funded statewide.

At the Capitol, after more than an hour's questioning, House subcommittee members unanimously approved Deal's pick for state transportation planning director, Toby Carr, sending him on for the full Transportation Committee's consideration.

Legislators said distrust between Atlanta and the rest of the state is not likely to subside soon. That dims the prospects for a new funding plan, and it means Carr will have his work cut out for him as he attempts to divvy up funding throughout Georgia.

Rural lawmakers said their communities are tired of being told what to do by bureaucrats and politicians.

They believe there is a bias toward metro Atlanta, lawmakers said, meaning no plan -- including projects in a one-cent sales tax for transportation -- stands a chance until that is addressed.

"I know our needs in these [rural] areas pale in comparison, but we're not addressing basic concerns: We still have hundreds of thousands of Georgians in the mud and dust," said state Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch, whose district is just east of Macon.

"The disconnect between Atlanta and our area is unbelievable. We're having some real communications problems," said state Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, whose coastal district sits just south of Savannah.

Only three of 12 regions across the state — Augusta, Columbus and a collection of counties in south-central Georgia — passed the transportation sales tax in the July 31 primary. While Deal already has veto power over Georgia metro areas' project lists, he said after the primary he intends to take a stronger role.

Deal also stressed he would take input from legislators and local officials to develop the priority list. Carr, a political aide and former director of the Georgia Republican Party, said Deal would not shun some areas over others.

"The governor believes 'One Georgia' is just that," said Carr. "He represents all 159 counties. They are all headliners in his mind."