Gov. Perdue's transportation proposals

Atlanta Forward/The Editorial Board's Opinion: He gets it: A tax can help state get going

Given Gov. Sonny Perdue’s double-barreled transportation proposal announced Thursday, one might have expected traffic-troubled Atlantans to have honked their horns in celebration of progress on Georgia’s stubborn transportation problems.

Perdue’s plan for both state bond issuances and regional taxing districts is a potential start forward in finding some of the money needed to begin solving the challenges that a Georgia Department of Transportation report says have “clearly eroded the state’s transportation performance on measures that drive economic competitiveness.” The governor’s concept — and it’s not an entirely new one — can only become reality if the General Assembly finally acts.

Somehow, some way, the third time must be the charm on transportation for Georgia and its gridlocked capital. The need to get rolling toward mobility solutions is too important for the Legislature to let inaction rule for yet another year. If that occurs, the real “super-speeders” won’t be benefiting Georgia coffers; they’ll be the other states that are making long-term transportation investments to hasten their post-recession economic growth. For Georgia’s sake, we can’t hand them that opportunity.

Gold Dome observers were pretty optimistic at the start of the session Monday that the House, Senate and Gov. Perdue would reach agreement on a workable solution this year.

By Wednesday, though, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jim Galloway was reporting online that the proposal to push for a statewide transportation sales tax was going nowhere this year.

Then Perdue’s idea came along. It should be a better sell to legislators who are understandably leery of being labeled tax-lovers during a red state’s election year. If all politics is truly local, then lawmakers should find a way this year to let the people decide whether fixing transportation is worth an extra penny tacked onto a dollar in purchases. Yes, it’s a new tax that voters must sign off on, but the cost of inaction is already whacking our wallets just as hard, if not harder. Motorists pay the inaction tax in wasted petrol each time their cars idle on Atlanta’s clogged highways and meandering streets that are too few and far apart to move traffic efficiently.

Georgia faces a choice that carries real consequences for our future. Georgia DOT’s new draft of its strategic transportation plan describes the dilemma this way: “In the end, under-investment in transportation puts future jobs and growth at risk.” Given that only Tennessee trails Georgia in transportation investment these days, it’s easy to back up GDOT’s assertion.

In 2006, Georgia invested about $380 per person toward transportation spending. That’s roughly half the national average and woefully behind Florida ($730), Virginia ($630) and North Carolina ($500). We must begin to pave the way toward greater investment in this critical area. If people and goods don’t move efficiently, our economy won’t grow much either.

Our competitive neighboring states shouldn’t drive away with growth that could have come to Georgia.

The GDOT report makes plain the need for long-term funding to pay for improving the state’s roads and even the rail lines that carry freight and passengers across Georgia, and beyond.

Doing so will require new thinking on reliable revenue streams needed to get on with this vital work. To that end, legislators should look hard at raising Georgia’s motor fuels taxes. As of spring 2009, only Alaska had a lower tax, GDOT reports, and we’d bet congestion is not nearly as much of an urgent problem up there. Perdue’s proposal even acknowledges that fuel taxes “are declining at a time when transportation needs are increasing.”

Yes, fuel prices remain high, but fuel taxes at least place part of improvement costs with users. That’s only fair, and similar logic has been used to argue for increased use of toll lanes on area highways.

Georgia can no longer afford to starve its transportation infrastructure. Catching up in coming decades will require billions more than what Perdue calls for. Even so, he offers a startup plan that the General Assembly should put into high gear.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board

In coming weeks and months, we will look at major issues Atlanta must address in order to move forward as the economy recovers. Look for the designation “Atlanta Forward,” which will identify these discussions.