Politics & Government

Panel seeks ways to close state transportation funding gap

When members of a state legislative transportation panel got together Wednesday morning in Macon, they heard plenty about the area’s needs.

They heard little about how to pay for those needs, but one suggestion came from Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert.

Reichert, himself a former state legislator, suggested that the General Assembly impose a 1-percent transportation sales tax across the state, except in regions that already opted in to a similar tax.

“I think this is the time for us to be bold,” Reichert told the Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding. “I think this is the time for us to be strong and to take aggressive action for the future. I would say to you that nothing would be worse than to mess around and raise taxes a little bit and not fix the problem. Then you’re going to get blamed both ways.”

Reichert’s plan to exempt the three regions that already have a transportation sales tax drew skeptical comments and questions from state Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, and a co-chairman of the panel, state Rep. Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla.

Dooly County Commissioner Terrell Hudson, whose county is in a region that did pass a transportation sales tax, said under Reichert’s idea, his county’s needs wouldn’t be met before the proposed eight-year “sunset” caused the tax to expire.

“We’ve got needs too far out,” he said. “There doesn’t need to be a sunset out there.”

Hudson later told The Telegraph that transportation has been underfunded for most of his 29 years on the commission.

Before the transportation tax passed in the region that includes Dooly County, “we were to the point we couldn’t put lines on the road,” he said.

Todd Long, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation and its former planning director, said the state has cut so far back on maintenance that it only cuts roadside grass twice a year. Funding is hurting the system.

“It’s hard to maintain it at the level we want to have,” Long told The Telegraph.

Roberts told The Telegraph that his panel is listening around the state to needs and funding, such as increasing sales or gas taxes. Roberts said he expects the panel will have a legislative recommendation that could get passed next year.

State Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, said she wonders if Middle Georgia should try again for a regional transportation sales tax. She said other counties opposed to the tax get benefits from the Interstate 16/Interstate 75 interchange, which drew a big share of the proposed funding.

Catherine L. Ross, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development, said Georgia’s transportation expenses weren’t enough to cover a state growing in population and connectedness. She told a legislator, “the resources, as you know, are woefully inadequate as far as where we are, where we need to go, maintaining what we have.”

Reichert pitched high-speed rail and inter-city passenger rail at Wednesday’s meeting. Doug Faour, who manages the Middle Georgia Regional Airport for Macon-Bibb County, said a runway extension there would bring big economic benefits.

Alex Morrison, executive director of the Macon Bibb County Urban Development Authority, said downtown Macon is almost perfectly walkable, but the city would benefit from bicycle routes outside its urban core. Morrison said Copenhagen, Denmark, cut car traffic and improved health by adding bike access.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.