Business groups pitch regional sales tax bill

ATLANTA - Business leaders from across metro Atlanta urged lawmakers Monday to pass a bill that would use regional sales taxes to fund transportation improvements aimed at the region's worsening traffic congestion.

Highway gridlock, an "unintended consequence'' of the Atlanta area's soaring population growth, has gotten so bad that it's hurting both local businesses and their employees, Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, told members of a House subcommittee during its first hearing on the bill.

"It's choking our ability to recruit companies and threatening our competitiveness to recruit talent,'' he said. "It's an impediment to our quality of life.''

The legislation, which has both Republican and Democratic sponsors, would allow two or more adjacent counties to work together to develop a regional transportation improvement plan.

The proposal would list specific projects to be funded through a combination of regional sales and/or gasoline taxes. It would include a sunset provision requiring that the tax expire at a certain date or when the projects are completed.

Then, the plan would be submitted to voters in the affected counties.

Bill Hickey, vice chairman of the Atlanta chamber's transportation committee, said voters have approved regional sales taxes dedicated to transportation in other fast-growing cities - including Denver, Phoenix, San Diego and Charlotte, N.C.

On the other hand, he said, statewide transportation sales tax proposals - such as an alternative bill introduced by House Transportation Committee Chairman Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain - have fared poorly.

Hickey cited Washington state as an example. He said a statewide referendum there failed in 2002 because rural voters were convinced that most of the money would go to urban areas, while urban voters weren't convinced that enough funding would go toward public transit.

"A regional approach is something all areas of the state can agree on,'' he said. "It guarantees that each community can meet its needs first.''

Several speakers during Monday's hearing expressed concerns about provisions in the bill.

John Keys, external affairs director for the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, warned the subcommittee to beware of provisions that give counties that become involved in regional transportation plans a way to opt out of participating in the final product.

He compared that scenario to the Atlanta region's MARTA rail system, which was conceived three decades ago as regionwide but has never reached beyond Fulton and DeKalb counties.

"Transportation needs don't stop at county lines,'' Keys said. "It takes a number of counties to be an adequate-sized region.''

Tom Gehl of the Georgia Municipal Association, urged lawmakers to consider basing the legislation on "special districts'' that would levy regional sales taxes rather than making counties the taxing bodies.

"That would give cities and counties an equal seat at the table,'' he said.

But all 14 speakers at Monday's hearing at least supported the bill in concept.

Several talked about how a regional sales tax could help their parts of the state.

Betty Willis of Emory University, president of the Clifton Corridor Transportation Management Association, said she envisions it as a way to fund a proposed commuter rail line linking Atlanta and Athens via Gwinnett and Barrow counties. The planned route would serve 28,000 people who work in the Clifton Corridor, which isn't within easy access of either MARTA or an interstate highway.

Willis called the area, which also includes the headquarters of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a microcosm of the Atlanta region's traffic woes.

"It is critical that we have an off-road transit alternative,'' she said.