Georgia DOT board hears road funding options

ATLANTA - Traffic congestion in metro Atlanta will keep getting worse, sapping the region's economy and quality of life, unless taxpayers are willing to invest billions of dollars in transportation improvements, business leaders said Tuesday.

Representatives of the highway industry and the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce pitched two proposals to help address a projected $7.7 billion shortfall in needed road projects during the next six years to members of the State Transportation Board.

"This is a true crisis," said Mike Kenn, president of Georgians for Better Transportation, a lobbying group that promotes highway funding. "Everything should be up for consideration."

For years, rapid population growth both statewide and in the Atlanta region - and the resulting increase in traffic - have outstripped state and local governments' ability to finance additional highway capacity.

But a recent development has turned up the inflationary pressure on road building.

Kenn said the cost of asphalt has more than doubled since July of last year, while concrete prices have risen by 43 percent.

While Georgia's road capacity needs have increased greatly, the General Assembly hasn't raised the state's gasoline tax in more than 30 years.

The current tax system has other problems as well. Since most of the tax is a flat amount based on gallons purchased, the revenue hasn't increased with the cost of gasoline.

Also, state law requires that all of the revenue go to highways and bridges, leaving no money for mass transit.

Kenn's group is recommending a statewide referendum in 2008 that would call for eliminating the gasoline tax and replacing it with a 1 percent statewide sales tax dedicated to transportation projects.

He said using sales taxes to fund highways would be an "inflation-sensitive" approach in that more revenue would be raised as the prices of goods purchased increased.

Kenn said sales tax revenue also would give transportation planners more flexibility because it could be used for transit projects as well as building roads.

But several board members questioned whether the General Assembly would be willing to consider what amounts to a tax increase.

Supporters of a second plan presented on Tuesday said they could avoid the political pitfall of asking lawmakers to raise taxes by taking a regional approach.

The metro Atlanta chamber's plan would allow two or more contiguous counties to put together regional sales tax proposals modeled after the SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) system already being used by counties and submit them to voters in their areas.

Like SPLOST proposals, they would list the specific transportation projects the money would be used for and include sunset provisions, so the tax would expire when the work is completed.

Phil Hickey, vice chairman of the chamber's transportation committee, said SPLOST votes have passed easily in many communities because voters knew up front how their tax money was going to be used.

"There's an innate suspicion about raising taxes," he said. "If I can understand how I benefit from it, I can remove that suspicion that somebody else is going to get a slice of the pie."

But Kenn said the chamber's approach wouldn't lead to the permanent source of transportation funding the state needs and wouldn't raise as much money as his group's sales-tax proposal.

"A temporary tax doesn't address long-term problems," he said. "It would be in the best interests of this state to look at something that's more permanent and has a greater impact."

Board Chairman Mike Evans said he's not leaning toward either plan. But he said board members must approach Gov. Sonny Perdue and the legislature with a united front if they hope to sell any proposal for more transportation money.

"We don't have to convince anybody on (Interstate) 285 or (Ga. Highway) 400 that there's congestion," Evans said. "But we still need to make the case."