Transportation Study Committee Looking For Funds

August 11, 2014 10:00 am

by Charlie · 14 comments

This week’s Courier Herald column:

One of the bigger myths of Georgia politics is that our legislators only serve 40 days a year.  True, our model is for civilian legislators to all meet in Atlanta during the winter each year.  For those 40 days to be most productive, however, a lot of work must be done during the rest of the year to make sure complex issues get the effort, attention, and scrutiny they deserve.  One of the ways this is accomplished is through an appointed study committee.

Often, study committees are viewed as a way to “kick the can” – a move to appear busy on a political issue during the session but in reality punting the issue to later.  Other times, it’s a way to gift an issue to a newly elected class and/or administration.  Even still, the extra study time can be a way to allow building consensus on how to solve complex and expensive problems.  These reasons are not mutually exclusive.

Perhaps one of the most “studied” issues in recent Georgia political history is that of transportation.  As such, the appointment of a joint House-Senate committee to again study the issue over summer vacation is likely to generate eyerolls from those who believe that once again, it is easier to study a problem than to fix it.  Well, this fact is stipulated.

As the first meeting of this committee commenced in the Coverdell Legislative Office Building last week, there was a sense that this time, it may be different.  The room was filled beyond capacity.  For an early August day that’s somewhat unusual.

There was significant presence from the legislature as well.  All legislators appointed to the Committee – including both chamber’s Transportation and Appropriations chairs – were on hand.  But there were others, not members of either the committee or either standing transportation committee, who were also present.

Jan Jones, Speaker Pro Tem of the House, was on hand and asked a few questions when given the opportunity.  Senator Rene Unterman – currently said to be in the running for President Pro Tem of the Senate – was also attentive.  She was especially attentive when the issue of tolls on I-85 HOT lanes were discussed.

The inclusion of the Appropriations chairmen and the attendance of those in Leadership and would be leadership is not an accident.  This first session was to set the table in a manner to frame the problem:  Georgia spends less on transportation per capita than any other state.  We divert a significant portion of the taxes we collect on the sale of motor fuels to many other uses than transportation.

Moving the roughly eleven cents per gallon of gas collected in taxes but not spent by the Department of Transportation to fill part of our funding gap will require the work and support of the Appropriations chairs at a bare minimum.  That change would add about three quarters of a billion dollars to the DOT’s annual budget.

The DOT’s gap between funding and identified projects is estimated at $74 Billion according to a Presentation made by Commissioner Keith Golden.  A one slide breakout of “priority” projects included redesign of interchanges for I-285 at I-20 on both sides of Atlanta ($700M), “Revive I-285” and addition of managed lanes ($4 billion), I-85 widening from metro Atlanta to both South Carolina and Alabama ($800M and $450M respectively), the I-16 and I-75 interchange in Macon ($300M), the Atlanta Managed Lanes Tier 1 System ($2 Billion), and completion of the Governor’s Road Improvement Program (GRIP) at 6.8 Billion.

That’s about $15 Billion, just in the priority category.  Meanwhile, the Federal Highway Trust Fund which Georgia has grown to rely on for the majority of our new construction money is insolvent, with Congress currently only allowing for a short term patch to fix.  Long term solutions could likely mean less, not more, money coming from DC.

Studying the problem will likely be easy.  Solving the problem will be harder – Thus the attendance and attention of legislative leadership.  Reallocating the almost $750 Million taxed on motor fuels but not appropriated to the DOT will take a major legislative initiative.  The Study Committee will have to decide if that is adequate and if not, what else is politically possible.

It should be noted that in the Senate, 30 of the 38 members of the GOP caucus have been elected during or after the 2010 Tea Party elections.  That’s not a group that is likely to fully embrace a tax increase.  And yet, with all metrics available, the question has been called directly as when it comes to transportation funding if Georgians really are taxed enough already.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

saltycracker August 11, 2014 at 10:32 am

Move the 11 cents as suggested to the DOT and add another 11 cents or more to the fuel tax….start identifying taxes/fees now collected involving transportation and reallocate them. Licensing, tags, fees including parking fees, inspections, sales taxes on automotive equipment, parts, services, supplies……impact fees/minimum standards for parking lots ? How about all those fines collected on traffic violations?

saltycracker August 11, 2014 at 10:56 am

Just had a chuckle if the legislators told the cities/counties that half their fines on the interstates and DOT roads had to go into a state transportation account !

Charlie August 11, 2014 at 10:57 am

I actually like that idea.

However, with all the money going locally the state & DOT have incentive to keep raising the speed limits as they’re doing on I-285. So….let’s leave the ticket revenue status quo and get the speed limits on most of our interstates higher.

saltycracker August 11, 2014 at 11:02 am

It is 80 by default now. I set my cruise on 76/78, OTP usually I75, 85, no problem. The revenue is plus 80. And state roads get zip.

saltycracker August 11, 2014 at 11:18 am

Rather focus on getting some of the revenue than getting to 100mph. A disincentive to a town of 5k putting 7 cars on a short stretch of the interstate…

saltycracker August 11, 2014 at 11:55 am

Interstate travel gives me more (non driving) time to visit our beloved PP .
Regard to speeds: due to 80 mph and aggressive drivers (rarely big rigs) we now leave the small high mpg car +30 in the garage for local travel and the 21 or less hwy mpg big SUV for the interstate. The psychology out there demands it, regardless of the 50% added fuel costs.

Dave Bearse August 11, 2014 at 10:38 pm

The fines may be paid to local authorities, but various statutory component fines are supposed to be directed to a cornucopia of causes / agencies. I expect audits would reveal many local authorities aren’t collecting, or are keeping, various statutory fines.

When the disposition of tens of thousands of dollars in war on drugs seizures aren’t accounted for as they should be, it’s no wonder that a $10 here, 5% there that’s supposed to be collected with the fines and accounted for isn’t.

Eric The Younger August 11, 2014 at 11:00 am

I like where you’re headed.

northside101 August 11, 2014 at 10:49 am

I wonder if toll roads will have to be a part of the equation? Many northern states built toll roads roughly in the decade or so following World War 2, before it became clear Congress (in 1956) would pass the federal Interstate highway system under Eisenhower. The Pennsylvania Turnpike was partially open even before World War 2 (the nation’s first long-distance superhighway, part of which opened in 1940 from the Pittsburgh area to near Harrisburg, the state capital), though not completely finished until the late 1950s. Massachusetts built theirs from the Boston suburbs to New York state between 1955-1957, all financed through bounds as the state lacked money otherwise to build that road because of financial commitments to pricey roads in inner-city Boston and the 128 loop around Boston (akin to our 285). Today in the South, the only state with a long-distance (say over 100 miles) toll road is the Florida Turnpike from Wildwood down to the Miami area. There are some other toll roads in Florida and in the Richmond area in Virginia. While drivers are not wild of course about chunking change into the booth (of course these days with modern technology, tolls can be deducted electronically), they are basically user fees—if you don’t want to use them, you don’t have to. You can stick to the 2-lane or 4-lane with lots of traffic lights.

Charlie August 11, 2014 at 10:55 am

They’re going to be “part” of the solution, but I don’t think they are the major part.

There is no appetite to place tolls on existing lanes (see the reaction to I-85 Hot Lanes despite the fact they are more…”popular” than projected). We already have tolled HOT lanes coming to I-75 north and south of Atlanta. The priority list includes other metro Atlanta HOT lanes.

Outside of metro Atlanta it becomes more difficult to see where a new road with tolls would attract traffic away from existing roads. There’s talk of a limited access fall line freeway (the fall line freeway is part of the GRIP program but as I understand it is mostly divided four lane highway without limited access) but I don’t see the traffic to do that with tolls that wouldn’t just ride on the existing our under construction four lane.

All the parties involved caution that there isn’t “one silver bullet”. Thus, anything that can help in an area should be considered. Tolls will be part of the mix. But the preface seems to be that tolls will only be on additional capacity, and that limits the ability to implement them as a bigger part of the solution.

saltycracker August 11, 2014 at 10:58 am

Agree. The solutions must be more than leave what we have alone and find a new trick pony to pile on.

Dave Bearse August 11, 2014 at 9:27 pm

Ouch! This column has two substantial errors.

Currently about 11 cents of the state’s 4% sales tax on motor fuel DOES goes to transportation. The 1% that does not is approximately three-four cents per gallon, not 11 cents per gallon.

The 7.5 cent state motor fuel excise tax, plus 3% of the 4% motor fuel sales tax, provides nearly $800M annually in state funds for transportation (and the feds provide $1.2B). Redirecting the additional 1% sale tax to transportation will add about $140M annually (each penny a gallon raises about $40M), not $750,000,000 (or about double the state funding).

Charlie August 11, 2014 at 10:15 pm

That’s not an error. There’s a lot more than the “4th penny”.

The avg sales tax in GA is somewhere between 6 and 7 percent. Only 3% of what is collected in motor fuel (user fee) goes to the DOT. 1% goes to the state general fund (the 4th penny) and the rest goes to various accounts scattered across the state for many different purposes.

Most current estimates on the value of the 4th penny are about $180M-$200M. Those other pennies bring the total to somewhere between $700M and $750M.

Thus, when you look at “taxes paid on gasoline” when you look at a GA vs neighboring states comparison, it looks like we’re at or near the top.

When you realize barely half of that represents our tax vs our effective user fee, you start to understand the problem we have.

…and it’s a problem we’ve had for over 20 years, with the effects really starting to show.

Dave Bearse August 13, 2014 at 11:40 am

Georgia sales taxes in excess of 4% are local taxes, not state taxes. Other states have local sales taxes on motor fuel that I’d guess aren’t all applied to transportation.

You’re overlooking that here in Georgia, much of the local tax on motor fuel already is used for transportation—1% MARTA in Fulton and DeKalb, much of the Gwinnett and Cobb SPLOSTS, etc. Your $700-$750M figure is at least a couple hundred million short of new transportation spending—I stand by the statement the column is in error, though not as grossly so.

It wasn’t error, but the column hid that the proposal was appropriating local taxes, and has the state cutting local education spending—I’d guess more than $200M of local motor fuel sales tax are in E-SPLOSTs or otherwise used for education.

This column was a disappointment, and not up to your usual high standard.