Renewed hunt on for state road money

mlee@macon.comFebruary 3, 2014 

ATLANTA -- Georgia’s transportation budget is up a little this year, thanks to an uptick in tax receipts. But analysts say there’s a bigger problem: more projects than money, and a good bit of debt.

“We consistently have the best maintained roads in the country. We consistently do things on a shoestring budget,” Keith Golden, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation, told legislators at a hearing at the state Capitol recently.

“Transportation is the driving force behind the strong economy. We’ve got to make investments in transportation if we want to continue to grow jobs in Georgia,” Golden said.

“Our per-capita invest in transportation is low,” he said. “We (have) one of the lowest gasoline taxes in the country” at roughly 19.3 cents per gallon. Of that, 16.3 cents, worth roughly $800 million annually in the past few years, goes to GDOT.

Much of the rest of its roughly $2 billion budget comes from Washington, D.C., for the year that ends this July. Debt service totals $401 million.

Of course, no agency head ever shows up at a budget hearing without wanting more money.

But “the obvious transportation needs are far beyond our ability to pay,” said Alan Essig, executive director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit based in Atlanta.

Indeed, enough people agree that more cash needs to be put into roads, rails and bridges that something may happen on that front.

Building on failure

But first, anyone who wants more transportation money has to consider that voters have already said they don’t want to pay an extra penny in sales taxes -- at least not as the Legislature proposed in a 2012 public referendum. Voters in just three of 12 regions agreed to a new tax for transportation work.

Some were for and some were against the regional tax plan, said state Senate Democratic Leader Steve Henson of Tucker, “but most felt we had infrastructure problems, ... that we need to fund our roads.”

Supporters -- mostly politicos and chambers of commerce -- put a lot of time, effort and sometimes money into wooing their voters. Detractors launched a range of criticisms. Houston County voters revolted against the tax idea on the grounds that an 8 percent sales tax is too much. The proposition passed only in the regions that run roughly in a V-shaped line from Columbus through Dublin toward Augusta.

Washington and Laurens counties already are “reaping the rewards” for approving the tax, said state Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch.

And the rejection of the tax across most of the midstate, he said, is slowing down projects such as the Interstate 16 and I-75 upgrade and the Middle Georgia Regional Airport runway extension.

Plan B needed

“Instead of trying to find one silver bullet solution, ... probably what we need to think about, a plan B, is more of a toolbox approach,” with lots of different tools inside, said Michael Sullivan, chairman of the Georgia Transportation Alliance, which pushed for the regional tax on behalf of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

He’s part of a new informal group that nicknamed itself the “snow in hell” coalition because the members are an unlikely group from all along the political spectrum.

“We’re not fighting. We’re asking for governing, and we need some leadership in transportation and we’re willing to work from a grass-roots perspective,” said syndicated columnist-turned-campaigner Charlie Harper of the Peach Pundit Georgia politics blog at a news conference to introduce the alliance.

Standing with him at the announcement were Sullivan, Atlanta Tea Party co-founder Debbie Dooley, Sierra Club lobbyist Neill Herring and several of their colleagues. Harper also used the event to launch his centrist Republican think-tank, PolicyBEST.

Jointly, the coalition recommended several transportation funding ideas, including allowing groups of counties or cities to join up as they please for transportation sales taxes. The 2012 vote was on lines drawn in Atlanta.

That approach, for example, sliced the Macon-to-Atlanta rail route into several regions, effectively barring that idea from any attention.

The coalition also wants to allow sales taxes of less than 1 cent on the dollar for more modestly priced projects.

And finally, the coalition supports sending all 19.3 cents of the gasoline sales tax -- the so-called “fourth penny” -- to transportation.

That’s about $180 million to $200 million annually, said Sullivan. And the buying power is potentially much more, depending on how it’s leveraged to attract matching federal funds.

But lawmakers don’t easily give out the PIN number to the state bank account, which is now where the fourth penny lands. They will scrap over as little as $100,000 within annual state spending of nearly $20 billion.

But Dooley is optimistic.

“Everyone has said we need more money for transportation,” she said, adding that she thinks it makes sense that a user fee -- the gas tax -- should pay for transportation. “I haven’t seen the push back yet that people would expect.”

On the other hand, the general fund pays for things such as schools and health care, which would suffer if $200 million were subtracted from it.

“There’s no painless way to do it,” Essig said.

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