The countdown to 2012 started Wednesday as Gov. Sonny Perdue signed legislation allowing Georgians to vote two years from now for what would appear to be the largest single increase in transportation funding in the state's history
The new law takes a major crack at an issue metro Atlanta has struggled with for decades -- increasing congestion that is choking the region’s growth, every year costing its drivers $3 billion, with each commuter wasting about 57 hours.
In a nod toward a growing need for mass transit that can’t legally be funded with the gas tax, the law allows funding for a variety of transportation types and will let Clayton County decide whether to join MARTA.
For those whose eyes gleam for a particular interstate interchange or new streetcar, the new law may represent the best chance over the next decade to get major projects funded.
But between now and the 2012 referendum lie a host of obstacles. And at the finish line lies a reward that even the bill’s biggest backers concede won’t come close to stamping out the state’s transportation needs.
"As with any legislation we pass here, detractors can pick out the things they don’t like about it," Perdue said in his office, surrounded by House Speaker David Ralston, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and others. "This is a solid, good piece of legislation for Georgia’s future economic prosperity. And it goes further than we’ve ever gone dealing with transit and statewide transportation funding."
Before signing the bill, Perdue made a point of signing the new statewide strategic transportation plan, which will be the basis for drawing up the project lists for the tax. It shows Georgia has invested in transportation in the past, but in recent years it has largely coasted, to the point where the state now spends less per capita on transportation than any state but one. It also shows that the revenue from a sales tax like the one proposed couldn't solve Georgia's problems alone.
Under the new law, Georgia is now divided into 12 transportation districts, including one for metro Atlanta that takes in Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale counties. A “roundtable” consisting of elected officials from those counties will attempt to draw up a list of projects, selected from an example list provided by an appointee of the governor. If they are successful, the region’s voters will then vote in 2012 whether to fund the projects with a 1 percent sales tax that would last for 10 years. Voters would then decide whether to renew the tax.
But before the 2012 referendum, officials from counties with wildly different needs must agree on a project list. The state will have a new governor, meaning potentially a new philosophy on what sort of projects should be on the example list. And there will be two more sessions of the state Legislature -- an opportunity that those who had a gripe with HB 277 do not intend to let lie.
“There is no question that it is not perfect, but it is a down payment,” MARTA CEO Beverly Scott said as she left the governor’s office after the signing, adding that her transit agency had issues with the bill that could be "refined."
Those and some others:
- MARTA came in for a special restriction in the bill: None of the new tax money could be used to pay for operations of the current MARTA system. MARTA officials say that singled out MARTA unfairly, and they would like it reversed. MARTA also got flexibility in how it spends its current sales tax revenue, but only for three years.
- If voters approve the tax for metro Atlanta, it would be sapped by tax exemptions built into the bill, according to calculations done recently at the Atlanta Regional Commission. Car buyers would only have to pay sales tax on the first $5,000 of any car purchase, and drivers wouldn't pay the new penny tax when they buy gas. Those exemptions could add up to $80 million to $100 million per year, said David Sjoquist, director of the Fiscal Research Center at Georgia State University. That means that over 10 years, rather than bringing in $7.5 billion to $7.9 billion, the tax could bring in less than $7 billion for metro Atlanta.
- Whenever the referendum is held, it will conflict somewhere with other special local taxes that are up for renewal. Some local leaders would like to choose when they hold the transportation referendum to avoid having more than one tax on the ballot.
Bill Linginfelter, chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said his organization would be "vigilant" in watching proposed changes to the bill that it worked hard to get passed. "We have been watching, helping, waiting, facilitating and collaborating for a long time to get to this point," he said. "We’re not about to just step away."
Other issues abound, though it is unclear at this point how many will undergo a serious effort at revision. Some county officials were unhappy with the amount of control that the governor's appointee will have over the project list and with the weight that even small counties get on the roundtable. There has been talk whether some officials with local standing, for example DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, might oppose the referendum. Ellis said in an interview Wednesday that he hoped it could be tweaked, but he would support it.
"Can I live with the outcome?" Ellis asked. "Sure I can live with the outcome. Do I think it’s progress? Sure I think it’s progress."
Should the region be unable to come to terms with the planning director or each other over a project list, there would be no referendum. The law brands that outcome with a special term: "special district gridlock."
One county may see even bigger transportation changes as a result of the law. It allows Clayton County, which shut down its C-Tran bus system on March 31 for budget reasons, to vote this year to join MARTA and pay for it with yet another penny sales tax.
For now, the planning process gets rolling. The ARC will be planning central for the project list, ARC Chairman Tad Leithead said. When it comes time to sell the list to voters, backers including the Metro Atlanta Chamber will launch a massive publicity campaign, probably including radio and newspaper ads, editorials, public speeches, local lobbying and visits on the talk circuit to groups such as Rotary and Kiwanis clubs.
Perdue said he would campaign for it, too, "throughout the state."
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