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House bill offers regional approach to traffic woes

ATLANTA - With business leaders from across traffic-choked metro Atlanta standing behind them, House lawmakers Wednesday unveiled bipartisan legislation aimed at unlocking the region's road gridlock.

The bill, introduced halfway through the 40-day legislative session, would allow two or more adjacent counties to ask voters to raise local sales taxes and/or create a local gasoline tax to pay for transportation improvements in their communities.

"Are you tired of sitting in traffic? I am,'' said Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, the measure's chief sponsor, during a news conference just off of the House floor. "I don't have to tell anybody how traffic is affecting our area.''

For years, Georgia lawmakers have resisted pleas by Department of Transportation officials to increase the state's gasoline tax for fear of upsetting voters. In fact, it hasn't been raised in three decades.

But last fall, the DOT and lobbyists for the highway construction industry began bombarding lawmakers and the public with news of a projected $7.7 billion six-year shortfall in transportation funding.

The agency launched a Web site listing every road project in the state that is being delayed because of the money crunch, county by county.

A coalition of 15 chambers of commerce - all but one from metro Atlanta - pitched the State Transportation Board in December on a proposal to address that funding gap with a regional approach that would allow two or more counties to develop transportation improvement plans to submit to their voters.

The bill introduced on Wednesday stems from that plan.

"It gives local communities the opportunity to decide for themselves how to handle traffic problems,'' said Rep. Virgil Fludd, D-Fayetteville, one of the bill's cosponsors.

Under the bill, adjacent counties interested in joining forces to speed up needed transportation improvements could ask voters to approve a 1 percent local sales tax - which would not count against their existing sales tax ceiling - or a local gasoline tax of up to 10 percent.

Counties that want to fund their plans with both sales and gasoline taxes would have to limit the gasoline portion of the tax to 5 percent.

Each referendum would have to list the projects to be funded with the tax money.

An automatic "sunset'' provision would require that the new taxes expire at a certain date or when the projects are completed.

Dick Anderson, chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, said traffic congestion in the region is the biggest challenge for businesses trying to recruit workers.

"It is a consequence of our growth,'' he said. "If we don't address it, we feel like our future growth will be in jeopardy.''

Besides the 15 chambers of commerce, the bill also is being endorsed by Georgians for Better Transportation, a group representing highway contractors, which outlined a proposal of its own last fall. At that time, the group called for a 1 percent statewide sales tax that would be dedicated to transportation.

However, that idea has failed to make any headway thus far with lawmakers.

Indeed, the business leaders supporting Martin's bill said regional transportation funding initiatives have fared better at the polls in other states than statewide tax proposals.

"We support whatever solution the General Assembly feels is in the best interest of the region and the state to solve the problem,'' Mike Kenn, president of Georgians for Better Transportation, said in a written statement.

Supporters of Martin's bill also emphasized that the regional tax initiatives it envisions could be used to finance mass transit projects as well as road building.

And they said the measure wouldn't necessarily be limited to counties in metro Atlanta.

Rep. Richard Royal, R-Camilla, a cosponsor of the bill, said rural counties with road needs potentially could partner with more populous counties, such as Dougherty County, and put together a transportation improvement plan.

Royal said he supports the 1 percent local-option sales tax idea. But he said he's against allowing local gasoline taxes of up to 10 percent.

"I think that's excessive,'' he said.