Georgia transportation panel wrestles with finances to fund projects

The panel has traveled the state, holding eight public hearings, but now it must actually produce a set of recommendations that leaders of the House and Senate have promised will be “significant” and “bold.” Legislation that created the Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding set a Nov. 30 deadline for the panel to submit recommendations to the General Assembly.

Already, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, have called for such big-headline changes. Talk has already begun of a possible increase in the state’s gasoline tax.

While there were few clues given at Thursday’s final committee meeting, panelists heard a variety of concerns and suggestions, especially about the growing impact that hybrid and electric vehicles have on the state’s bottom line. The more fuel-efficient the car, the less gasoline is purchased. The less gasoline purchased means the less collected in gas taxes for transportation projects.

“All of these new types of vehicles are coming on the market, and we as a state and a country are offering tax incentives for people to buy them on one hand,” Rome City Commissioner Buzz Wachsteter said. “But on the other hand, what are we doing? We’re taking away the revenue that was being produced by conventional vehicles that use motor fuel to provide revenue.”

Lawmakers on the panel seemed sympathetic. State Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming, said afterward that the committee heard a presentation from leaders in Florida, where electric vehicle owners are charged an annual fee to make up for the loss of gas taxes. While Hamilton mentioned a $250 fee during Thursday’s meeting, he said later that the number was just an example and not a proposal.

Panelists appeared particularly interested Thursday in a presentation from Virginia transportation executive Nick Donahue, who detailed how his state paid for $1.9 billion in improvements to the Beltway around Washington. Through aggressive bond sales to public-private partnerships that left private firms in charge of toll collection, Virginia added two extra toll lanes going each way on I-495 around the nation’s capital, Donahue said.

Donahue said Virginia also tried anything that seemed like it might work, including design-build projects that can be done more quickly, special tax assessment districts, tax increment financing and revenue sharing.

“These all helped,” he said. “(But) they didn’t get us over the hurdle.

“There’s never going to be enough money.”

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