This week’s Courier Herald Column:
The transportation funding bill is moving through the Georgia House of Representatives, albeit at a pace approximating rush hour traffic in Atlanta. Transportation Chairman Jay Roberts continues to quarterback the effort to move the legislation after spending much of the summer and fall co-chairing the legislative study committee that attempted to quantify the problem and identify potential funding sources as solutions.
Roberts told a subcommittee that originally heard the legislation that he was open and would listen to potential changes, but only had time for those willing to be constructive. The last couple of weeks have provided the opportunity for many criticisms, some of which were constructive and with changes incorporated into the current version.
The bill now stands before the full transportation committee, which held a hearing last Thursday afternoon. While there are still some headwinds facing the transfer of about $800 Million in existing tax revenues to the Department of Transportation, some progress was noted at the hearing.
Julianne Thompson, a conservative leader who had a role in organizing the Atlanta Tea Party and was a vocal opponent of Atlanta’s T-SPLOST, indicated support for the process and pledged to support the House version of the bill. Quelling earlier opposition to this bill, the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) also announced support for the measure. Local governments fearing lost revenue as existing taxes are phased out of local option sales taxes have grown more comfortable with the bill.
Chairman Roberts, for his part, has remained consistent in communicating what his bill does and does not do. At each committee meeting since the bill’s unveiling, he’s made it clear that local governments will continue to be able to collect all taxes on gasoline throughout the duration of any existing special purpose local option sales taxes.
He’s been equally clear that going forward, all taxes collected on gasoline will be used for transportation purposes. This is significant, as Georgia’s gas tax is currently at approximately the national average, while Georgia’s spending on highways per capita is the lowest of all 50 states.
This is because 99.3% of GDOT’s funding comes from federal and state gas taxes, but only 60% of taxes collected at the State and local levels on motor fuels go to GDOT. The overriding philosophy behind this bill is to correct this, and to re-establish the gas tax as a user fee.
The bill will likely receive another hearing in the House Transportation Committee before being moved along through the Rules Committee to the House floor. The bill will need to pass the House by “crossover day”, currently slated for March 13th, in order to be considered by the Senate this year.
Some are withholding support pending a more specific plan on which projects these funds will be used. These people, – whether in Atlanta or rural Georgia, whether wanting more money for roads or more for transit – should take solace in the fact that the bill as written appears to move less than $1 Billion for GDOT. While that’s a lot of money, it’s likely not enough for new projects to be fighting over.
GDOT’s presentations to previous study committee meetings and to the House transportation committees have been fairly specific. Because new projects have been prioritized over maintenance for some time, a backlog of maintenance has developed that will not be inexpensive to solve.
$128 Million is needed annually to return road maintenance to a 15-year resurfacing schedule. $456 Million is needed each year to replace aging bridges. $35 Million is needed annually for traffic operations. Add in the $200M annually needed to return GDOT to standards of “routine maintenance” and this money is spent before we talk about GDOT’s $1 Billion per year needed for new capital projects, transit for the Atlanta region, commuter rail, or other major projects of note.
This money will maintain the “roads we already paid for”. Little will be left for new ones.
The House bill as structured returns the principle of the gas tax as a user fee for GDOT, as is envisioned by Georgia’s constitution. But even with the additional money raised, local and regional initiatives will still be required to meet transportation investment needs for the foreseeable future.
As such, those that have approved TSPLOSTs will not be double taxed. Those who haven’t will likely have additional options such as smaller regions, local gas taxes for transportation, and possibly fractional cent sales taxes.
The House transportation plan isn’t a plan that will cure all of Georgia’s traffic woes. It is, however, a solid step that will get us moving in the right direction.
Charlie Harper is the Editor of PeachPundit.com, and is the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, a group which works on policy solutions for Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation.