ATLANTA - For the past year, Georgia transportation officials have used a projected $7.7 billion six-year shortfall in funding for needed highway projects as the chief argument in their fight for more money.
Thursday, they rolled out a much scarier long-term figure for the shortfall in a report released by a Washington-based nonprofit think tank.
According to TRIP, short for The Road Information Program, Georgia lists $51 billion more in planned highway and bridge improvements through 2035 than the level of funding available to build those projects.
"Georgia is falling behind in its ability to maintain mobility," said Frank Moretti, TRIP's director of policy and research.
"We're behind the 8-ball," added Mike Evans, chairman of the State Transportation Board.
Georgia business leaders and local elected officials, particularly those from metro Atlanta, have been urging the General Assembly to deliver a major infusion of cash for highway and transit projects needed to relieve traffic congestion.
Lobbyists for local governments and chambers of commerce told lawmakers they're losing business prospects because of the Atlanta region's growing reputation for road gridlock.
The legislature took up competing bills this year. One called for a statewide sales tax increase dedicated to transportation, while the other would have allowed one or more counties to put a regional sales-tax hike before their voters.
The TRIP study attributed increasing congestion to Georgia's population growth outstripping road building. The report found that traffic on major highways in the last 15 years has increased 10 times faster than additional highway lanes.
Moretti said that disturbing trend has occurred not only in the Atlanta area but on interstate highways across the state that have become major trucking corridors.
"It's the backbone of the nation's economy and certainly of growth in this state," he said.
The TRIP report also warned that unless the looming shortfall is addressed, the state will fall further behind maintaining highways and bridges, and the already alarming number of fatal crashes will rise.
"We know from experience that when roads are made safer, we see a significant reduction in fatalities," Moretti said.
Evans acknowledged transportation funding will be forced to compete with water shortages and tax reform as major issues for the legislature this winter.
But he said he's confident Gov. Sonny Perdue and legislative leaders understand the state must start addressing the shortfall.
Mike Kenn, president of Georgians for Better Transportation, an advocacy organization of highway builders, warned that any proposals lawmakers decide to put to the voters - such as a tax increase for highways - by law must be taken up in an even year.
He said that means the legislature must act during the coming session or wait until 2012 because the issue will be too politically charged to make consideration likely in 2010, a gubernatorial election year.
"We can't wait (until 2012)," Kenn said. "We're on a downward spiral here and, unless something is done, it'll only get worse."