Politics & Government

Georgia’s transportation needs get financial shot in the arm

ATLANTA -- Gov. Nathan Deal will soon sign a bill its author says will channel $900 million annually to road and bridge construction and maintenance. Georgians can expect to feel the impact pennies at a time.

“Georgians will soon see the road crews and the orange cones and smell the asphalt as it’s poured,” Deal said earlier this week in a written statement just after the final legislative vote on a transportation tax bill that’s been in the works for months.

The bill’s author, state Rep. Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, said it makes transportation funding “sustainable” for the future.

Part of the $900 million comes from shifting and simplifying existing gasoline taxes that drivers already pay. But part of it is new revenue -- a tax increase.

“Drivers can expect probably a four- to six-cent increase on gas prices,” said Garrett Townsend, a AAA spokesman.

For the rest, House Bill 170 imposes some new fees. There’s a new levy of $5 per hotel room per night, plus new fees on heavy trucks and 18-wheelers that range from $50 to $100, depending on a vehicle’s weight. Finally, it erases a tax break on electric vehicles and replaces it with a fee of $200 for passenger electric vehicles and $300 for commercial electric vehicles.

The money will be used for statewide works on road, bridges and rail with an aim to do long-neglected maintenance, increase safety and reduce congestion.

But the real need is more like $1 billion to $1.5 billion annually statewide, according to a 2014 report by a panel of lawmakers, industry representatives and members of the public. The problem, according to that report, is that as cars become more efficient, people buy less gasoline but use just as much roadway. Their report says that state and federal gas taxes no longer cover all the transportation work Georgia needs.

Indeed, the Georgia Department of Transportation did not commission any new projects in January or February, said House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire.

“There is a pent-up demand,” he said.

But state Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, voted against the bill, calling the new tax rate too “aggressive.”

The new policy kills the state sales tax on gasoline and replaces it with an excise tax. The tax will be 26 cents per gallon for regular gasoline and 29 cents per gallon for diesel.

Georgia also is borrowing more money for transportation. In fiscal 2015, which ends in June, the state borrowed some $22.7 million for the Department of Transportation. In fiscal 2016, the state aims to sell more than $100 million in transportation bonds.

The legislation and the budget mean real money to start big projects, such as the long-discussed modernization and enlargement of the interchange of interstates 16 and 75 in Macon.

But some counties are ahead of others when it comes to transportation projects. In 2012, three groups of counties in a broad band from Columbus to Jesup to Augusta voted themselves a penny sales tax for roads and bridges. Shovels already are in the ground for projects in those regions.

Those counties should still get a fair share of state road money, officials said. Existing law prohibits reductions to those regions as an offset to their regional sales tax revenues. An additional state law requires that equal amounts of federal and state transportation funding be distributed among the state’s congressional districts.

To contact writer Maggie Lee, e-mail mlee@macon.com.