Real solutions require hard choices

Political leadership is about solving the challenges of today while preparing for the Georgia of tomorrow. Only in hindsight do we have the benefit of understanding if the decisions were big enough to address all the issues we faced and bold enough to embrace the needs of future Georgians, and if they demonstrated the resolve to face the critics who painted pictures of fear to maintain the status quo.

On transportation, the GOP record remains — charitably — incomplete. An incoming Gov. Sonny Perdue killed the Northern Arc highway and made mostly incremental changes until the end of his term. He left for his predecessor a plan for T-SPLOST, a statewide set of regional referendums born of political expediency and killed by voters in the Atlanta region in surprisingly bipartisan fashion.

The four-year delay in a comprehensive, statewide transportation solution is evident in the Georgia Department of Transportation’s current finances. There is a $700 million annual deficit in the amount needed to return to a normal maintenance schedule for roads and bridges alone.

There remains $16 billion in “essential” projects, mostly re-engineering existing roads for current capacity rather than creating new ones. Billions more are needed for the road and transit infrastructure to accommodate the 4 million new Georgians expected over the next quarter-century.

Few argue about the need. Many have been sincerely studying the best option to solve today’s problems while positioning Georgia for the state it will be decades from now.

Honest disagreement remains how to raise the needed revenue and, frankly, how much is needed. There is a general consensus that the roughly 11.2 cents per gallon collected statewide in gasoline taxes not currently directed to GDOT should be transitioned to the agency to best match sources and uses of tax. This would add about $750 million a year to road and bridge maintenance and/or construction.

Beyond that, most discussion has been between a statewide sales tax and increased gas taxes. At the state level, almost $2 billion per year is required to handle only maintenance and GDOT’s essential projects.

The discussion, however, has produced positions that appear to favor something while providing cover for doing nothing. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation, for example, recently recommended, “Optional tolls and an optional, more flexible local sales tax adds up to another $800 million a year in possible new funding targeted where the need is greatest and paid for by those who will benefit most.”

The term “optional tax” is unique, but without practical meaning. Once enacted, taxes are optional only if you choose to conduct an activity that is taxed. Sales taxes are “optional” only if you choose not to purchase something. The same can be said for gas taxes: No one is forced to pay the tax — only those who buy gasoline.

Sadly, this recommendation repeats the mistakes of 2010-2012. Members of the Legislature were “for” the T-SPLOST referendum when they voted for it, and against the measure when it appeared on the ballot. Many of these leaders – who promised to have a better plan if voters rejected T-SPLOST — remained quiet on solutions and quickly left the Legislature.

The concept of “optional tolls” raises the same issues. You have to pay these tolls only if you drive on tolled roads. But voters must understand how many roads, and which roads, would be tolled to raise significant new revenue.

The belief that tolls are “optional” implies someone else will pay them, while the rest of us remain in a functionally “free” road system. The hundreds of millions of dollars needed would require not only tolling new capacity, but existing roads that have “already been paid for.”

The new managed-lanes projects on Atlanta interstates have variable fares to manage congestion, not maximize revenue. If the goal is revenue maximization, those proposing this have a duty to tell Georgians which roads will be tolled, and how much the tolls and collection costs will be.

There are no easy answers. Meaningless platitudes are easy, but will not fund our infrastructure needs. Closing the gap between existing revenues and the funds needed is where the real work begins.

Charlie Harper is the editor of Peach Pundit and executive director of PolicyBEST, a non-profit organization that advocates for issues on Education, Science and Medicine, and Transportation.

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