Georgia Leaders Hope for Transportation Fixes in 2015

Georgia Leaders Hope for Transportation Fixes in 2015

By Louis Mayeux –

Georgia’s governmental and business leaders want transportation placed atop next year’s political agenda.

With a flurry of committee meetings, media appearances and op-ed articles, they’re setting the stage for programs to ease metro Atlanta’s congestion, improve decaying infrastructure and replenish funding.

We’ve been here before – metro leaders in 2012 made a concerted effort to pass a 1-cent sales tax that would have raised $7.22 billion over 10 years to fund an ambitious list of metro projects. Despite a barrage of media promotion, voters overwhelmingly rejected the measure.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, already looking at a vote next year on a $150 million to $250 million bond issue to fix the city’s aging roads, bridges and traffic lights, predicted that regional leaders will come up with a new transportation plan in 2015

Reed told a forum in Washington, D.C. sponsored by Politico Magazine that ambitious programs like the defeated T-Splost need time to gain approval, the AJC reported.

However, roads funding wasn’t such a tough sell in the Augusta, Columbus and east-central Georgia regions, which T-SPLOSTS were approved in 2012. Now, those areas are receiving millions while metro Atlanta continues to plan, plan, plan. Perhaps our big-city communications specialists can ask their country cousins for pointers.

The Metro Chamber of Commerce at its annual meeting last week pinpointed transportation as its top priority when the Georgia Legislature gathers next month, the AJC said. A chamber-sponsored study found that the state needs to spend $1.5 billion more annually to move people around.

Chamber leaders Larry Gellerstedt III of Cousins Properties, and Richard Anderson of Delta gave backing to a possible tax increase to fund road improvements.’

Ada Hatzios, a chamber spokeswoman, said in an e-mail to InsiderAdvantage Georgia that the study from consulting firm HNTB had not been completed and will be ready later this week. She also said that the chamber has not taken an official position on a funding mechanism to close a transportation budget shortfall but that “a sales tax is one of multiple proposed options that has been suggested.”

A special legislative committee seeking proposals to close the $74 billion shortfall in state transportation funding over the next 20 years will make its report by the end of the year. An increase in the state’s gasoline sales tax is one possibility, along with a revised T-SPLOST plan in which two or three counties could join together.

Such a narrowly defined offering likely would have better prospects than another metrowide plan. City of Atlanta voters and DeKalb residents living inside the Perimeter strongly favored the T-Splost, so a city-DeKalb plan might work.

Yet, voter fatigue might weaken support even in intown areas. For example, pairing a T-splost with the bond referendum proposal would test Atlantans’ patience, although the bond plan won’t bring a tax increase.

Clayton County residents likely won’t show much enthusiasm for a new tax after supporting a 1-cent levy for MARTA expansion. Cobb County, which strongly turned down the T-SPLOST, last month approved the renewal of its local option tax for roads and other uses. A tax proposal so soon likely would fail.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia is also looking at transportation, particularly the shrinking federal Highway Trust Fund, which expires May 31 unless Congress takes action.

Isakson, in a recent AJC opinion article, said the federal gas tax is obsolete and called for a “user-pays” system that would bring in proceeds from drivers of electric and hybrid vehicles, which use the federal highways while avoiding the tax. Left unsaid was how this might be accomplished. The state legislative committee reportedly is also looking at ways to receive road revenues from users of electric vehicles, increasingly popular in Atlanta.

Atlanta’s not alone in seriously needing infrastructure repairs – a recent “60 Minutes” report highlighted the poor condition of the country’s roads, bridges and rail. While Atlanta often receives national criticism for its gridlock, at least it avoided Pittsburgh’s fate of having Steve Kroft flying over the city in a helicopter pointing out bridges near collapse.

With the Republican-controlled Congress taking office in January opposing tax increases, how national infrastructure improvements will be funded remains unclear.

Metro Atlanta’s solutions also look clouded. “Something must be done!” is the eternal cry. How to get it accomplished is the hard part, as Reed pointed out.