Most years, Georgia’s legislators struggle with problems measured in millions of dollars. This year, they’re likely to try to find transportation money measured in the billions.
It’s not clear where that money will come from. A legislative panel that studied the issue suggested a dozen funding mechanisms, mostly involving tax increases, but did not recommend any one method.
“We’re going to do something, but I just don’t know what we’re going to do,” state Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, told The Telegraph. “And the governor’s got to be on board with it.”
Both houses under the Gold Dome are controlled by Republicans, as is the governor’s office. But Lucas figures Democrats may be key to passing any sort of measure because tea party members likely won’t support tax increases.
Lucas served on the Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding, the panel that held hearings across the state. The committee said the state needs a minimum of $1 billion to $1.5 billion a year to help transportation. Those transportation issues could be funded with higher gas taxes, new sales taxes, charges to owners of alternative fuel vehicles or toll lanes.
The panel’s report stated that “to remain nationally and globally competitive ... Georgia must take immediate and significant steps to increase its investment in transportation infrastructure.”
Lucas phrased it differently.
“It’s reached a point where we got to pay the piper,” he said.
Three legislators speaking this week at a Peach County town hall-style meeting discussed transportation, but none suggested a specific fix. State Rep. Robert Dickey, R-Musella, predicted a “very heated and troublesome” debate. Part of the problem is that much of Georgia’s transportation funding comes from a federal source that’s drying up. Other funding comes largely from a tax on gasoline. Vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient, and because of inflation, a dollar doesn’t stretch as far as it did when the gas tax was last changed,
But Georgia has another factor working against it.
“Georgia’s not investing as much money in transportation per capita as most other states,” Dickey said.
State Sen.-elect John Kennedy, R-Bolingbroke, said there’s a big connection between infrastructure and the economic development the state wants. Such economic arguments likely are to be repeated under the Gold Dome.
Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert, himself a former legislator, made that argument in an interview with The Telegraph.
“It’s not wasteful government spending to invest in transportation infrastructure that is desperately needed to keep us competitive in economic development as well as a pleasant place to live,” Reichert said.
Reichert wants the General Assembly to pass a 1-percent sales tax to fund transportation projects in areas where voters rejected a similar measure in 2012. That transportation sales tax failed in most, but not all, regions of Georgia.
That failed sales tax would have put local money against state and federal dollars to rebuild the Interstate 16/Interstate 75 interchange, extend a Middle Georgia Regional Airport runway, repave local roads and build many more road projects across the region. Reichert said those needs remain.
“The voters really didn’t believe (officials) when they said this is Plan A and there really is no Plan B. What we’ve found out is they’re not really lying,” Reichert said. “There is no Plan B. Austerity is not a plan. We cannot remain competitive as a state. We can’t continue to have a quality of life with austerity as a plan for transportation.”
On Thursday morning, state Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch, was headed to a ceremony to break ground for a bridge over the Oconee River near Dublin. It will be an alternative to the sole existing bridge over the river, which connects Dublin to East Dublin, said Epps.
Laurens County has some new money because it’s in one of the three regions where voters approved a penny sales tax for transportation.
“This has long been needed,” said Epps, a retired paving contractor. “And we can bring it about because the voters of this region chose” the tax. Epps said when a new transportation funding proposal comes out, it should not be “punitive” to voters who already chose to tax themselves, Epps said.