Deal in works on transportation funding

By Dave Williams


ATLANTA - Legislative leaders Thursday formally buried the idea of a statewide sales tax for needed transportation improvements in favor of a regional approach.

The House and Senate transportation committees are working toward a compromise that would let Georgians vote by region whether to add a penny to the sales tax to pay for highway and transit projects.

If approved at the polls, the tax revenue that would be raised would stay in the region rather than be distributed across the state.

"We're moving toward an approach that uses local control with a regional structure," said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga). "We believe we're on the right track."

Mullis and his House counterpart, Rep. Vance Smith (R-Pine Mountain) spoke at a news conference called by an alliance of business and government leaders, road builders, transit advocates and environmental groups pushing for the General Assembly to come up with a new source of transportation funding in Georgia this year.

The nation's third-fastest growing state is dead last in per-capita spending on transportation, which has created a shortfall of billions of dollars for projects aimed at relieving mind-numbing traffic congestion.

"We all know more funding is needed to backfill that gap," said Charles Tarbutton of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, co-chairman of the Get Georgia Moving Coalition.

The Senate passed a constitutional amendment last month that would allow one or more counties to ask voters whether to approve a 1-cent transportation sales tax in their communities.

The House Transportation Committee has adopted a 1-cent statewide sales tax, but that measure - which also would be subject to voter approval - hasn't reached the full House.

At first blush, the compromise now in the works appears to adhere closer to the Senate version in that it would allow voters within regions to decide whether to raise the sales tax in their communities to pay for transportation improvements.

"We are simply asking citizens if they want to continue being 50th in transportation infrastructure or do they want to tax themselves," said Rep. Donna Sheldon (R-Dacula), a member of the House Transportation Committee.

However, the Senate is expected to concede to the House on a provision that would allocate all of the revenue raised by a regional sales tax referendum within that region.

The Senate measure calls for distributing 20 percent of the revenue statewide, with half of that amount required to go toward transit projects, such as buses or commuter rail.

Sheldon said voters are more likely to approve raising taxes if they know the money will be used in their communities for specific projects.

As is currently the case with Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax measures, the compromise legislation is expected to require regional planning agencies to publish a project list prior to the regional vote, as well as an expiration date for collecting the additional sales tax.

Mullis and Smith, working with their respective committees, are expected to have an agreement ready to be acted on by the end of next week.