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Leaders discuss transportation tax options

LAWRENCEVILLE - Barbara Runkle came to a transportation forum Monday with so many frustrations: The roads that need repaving, the turns that are too sharp for school buses, the lack of commuter rail, the accidents that clog the roads and endanger lives.

"What kills me is the gridlock," the Lawrenceville woman said.

But Runkle left the Chamber of Commerce forum with some hope. She said she'd willingly pay a penny sales tax proposed in the state Legislature to generate more money for the state's road crisis.

"It's a great idea, especially with all the shoppers," Runkle said. "I don't want to go (places) because you're going to sit there in traffic."

While Gwinnett County has more than $300 million in road construction projects under way, according to county Transportation Director Brian Allen, the state has a project list much longer than the available funds.

In fact, Georgia DOT Commissioner Harold Linnenkohl told the crowd of nearly 100 that the state has a nearly $200 billion shortfall for projects expected through 2035.

Because of rising costs of land and materials and an aging infrastructure, the DOT has been forced to cut projects, including pushing off the proposed interchange for Ga. Highway 316 at Collins Hill Road and Ga. Highway 20.

"These aren't bad projects; they are just ones we don't have the money for," Linnenkohl said. "If we move something in, we have to move something out."

Former Fulton County Commission chairman and Georgians for Better Transportation President Mike Kenn laid out the proposal to reform the state motor fuel tax in favor of a statewide penny tax.

He said the new funding method would generate twice as much revenue and be able to grow with inflation.

"Things are pretty dire in the state," he said. "The way we have financed transportation is an antiquated system, and it needs to be replaced. ... Everybody's going to be positively influenced by more transportation money."

Allen said he was concerned about a proposed additional regional sales tax taking away support of the county's penny program, which has garnered more than $1 billion for transportation over the past two decades. The Gwinnett sales tax also pays for libraries, police and fire stations and parks.

"We know there have to be other ways to finance transportation infrastructure," he said. "We think there are options with the motor fuel tax."

Chamber President Jim Maran said he also has concerns about the regional tax because "it doesn't take into account the needs of the suburbs."

But he said metropolitan Atlanta needs to take action both to increase quality of life and economic development.

"It's really affecting the type of companies that are coming here," he said. "We need to do something big to take care of this transportation system."