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Road money debate choice of regional, statewide solutions

By Dave Williams

ATLANTA - Georgia lawmakers wrestling with a gaping shortfall in transportation funding could embrace both regional and statewide tax proposals by the time the General Assembly heads home for the year.

With a $7.7 billion six-year gap between identified highway and transit projects and available funds, there's certainly room for both approaches.

A joint House-Senate study committee that met across the state last summer to examine the problem left the door open to both regional and statewide solutions with its report released last week.

But politically, it's going to be difficult to ask voters to approve both forms of taxation at the same time, particularly in an election year.

While the committee was created to make recommendations on transportation funding, its 20-page report contains a wide-ranging series of suggestions that go beyond how to pay for needed road and transit improvements.

Among the 16 pieces of legislation it proposes are resolutions requiring the Georgia Department of Transportation to adopt a statewide plan every five years, defining the authority of the state's various transportation agencies and creating an oversight committee to review ongoing transportation issues.

The report also calls for resolutions urging the DOT to use public-private partnerships whenever possible to finance and build projects, pursue building a network of HOT lanes to ease congestion on metro-Atlanta interstates and privatize road-maintenance work.

And it recommended a resolution supporting the inclusion of transit as a component of the statewide transportation plan.

Still, funding is at the crux of what the committee set out to examine.

Infrastructure bank

The low-hanging fruit promises to be the creation of a state infrastructure bank to make loans to local governments.

Gov. Sonny Perdue asked lawmakers last month for $50 million to launch the initiative, and the study committee supports the plan.

The heavy lifting for lawmakers will be choosing between the regional and statewide tax proposals.

At this early stage of the 2008 legislative session, the regional approach appears to have the inside track.

As envisioned in a bill introduced last year, it would allow two or more adjacent counties to band together and ask their voters to approve a 1-percent regional sales tax for transportation projects.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce led the fight for the legislation in 2007 and backs it again this year.

It is modeled after the highly successful Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax votes that have become a fixture in counties and school districts across Georgia.

Supporters say voters approve SPLOST measures in the vast majority of instances because the tax is intended for certain specific uses.

"They get to see what projects are going on the list and can choose whether to fund them," said Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Senate's presiding officer.

The regional approach advocated by Cagle is expected to draw much of its support from lawmakers representing metro Atlanta, where just two or three counties working together could raise enough tax money to make it worthwhile.

Lawmakers from outside of the metro region wouldn't necessarily oppose the legislation, either, because their constituents wouldn't be footing the bill for a sales tax limited to the Atlanta area.

But such a regional tax also wouldn't do anything to meet the transportation needs of the rest of Georgia.

"I'm more convinced than ever that you can't fund a statewide transportation system with a regional funding solution," said David Doss, a member of the State Transportation Board from Rome.

Doss was a key supporter of legislation introduced last year calling for a 1-percent statewide sales tax dedicated to transportation.

Two options

This year's version of the proposal, included as a recommendation in the study committee's report, calls for a couple of alternatives.

One would replace a portion of the state gasoline tax that currently charges motorists 7.5 cents per gallon with a sales tax of 7.5 cents per $1. That way, as gasoline prices rise, so would the tax revenue.

Making that change would raise an estimated $900 million per year.

The second option, the same 1-percent statewide sales tax advocated in last year's bill, would generate an estimated $1.5 billion annually.

It, too, would be subject to a voter referendum.

Rep. Ed Rynders, (R-Leesburg) a member of the House Transportation Committee, said there would be something for everyone in a statewide solution.

Metro-Atlanta counties would get money for congestion relief, and the rest of the state would get highway improvements needed for economic development, he said.

"A lot of people up here don't realize that in metro Atlanta, transportation is about moving people, and in rural Georgia, it's about moving goods," Rynders said. "It's not about congestion."

But Cagle said a statewide sales tax for transportation isn't going to happen in an election year.

"It would be very difficult to pass what would be viewed as a tax increase statewide," he said.

Typically, any kind of tax hike would be dead on arrival in the General Assembly in a year when all 236 lawmakers are up for re-election.

But this isn't a typical year.

With influential business leaders warning that they're starting to lose corporate prospects because of Atlanta's traffic, both Cagle and House Speaker Glenn Rchardson (R-Hiram), have vowed to take action in their respective chambers on transportation funding.

"I think it will be the big issue of this session," said transportation board Chairman Mike Evans of Cumming.

"There's been so much interest about transportation, something has to come to the floor," Rynders added. "The difficulty is going to be finding something to pass that satisfies the members of the House and Senate."