Bannister: Don't muddy SPLOST vote with second tax measure

ATLANTA - Any proposal to dedicate a regional or statewide sales tax to transportation could jeopardize a local tax that has generated $1.2 billion for road projects in Gwinnett County, Chairman Charles Bannister warned Thursday.

Addressing the kickoff meeting of a joint legislative study committee on transportation funding, Bannister said Gwinnett voters likely would be reluctant to support reauthorizing the special purpose local option sales tax next year if it were coupled either with a regional or statewide sales tax referendum.

"Do you want to vote for two taxes?" Bannister responded to a question from Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, one of the panel's two co-chairmen. "We must minimize the risk to existing funding."

The study committee was formed by the legislature this year to look for ways to inject more money into needed transportation improvements in a state that now relies on the nation's second-lowest gasoline tax.

Lawmakers considered two bills this year to use sales taxes to begin addressing a projected six-year $7.7 billion shortfall in transportation funding.

One of the measures, backed by a coalition of chambers of commerce, would have allowed two or more adjacent counties to ask voters to back a regional sales tax for road and transit projects. The other called for a 1 percent statewide sales tax dedicated to transportation, also subject to voter approval.

When neither made any headway, the General Assembly created the study committee to examine the issue and, hopefully, develop legislation for the 2008 session.

Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, the panel's other co-chairman, said he introduced the statewide sales tax bill to start laying the groundwork for what he knew would be months of discussion.

"I didn't expect a vote then because this issue is so big, you have to involve everybody," he said.

Bannister was among several regional and local officials from across Georgia, representing both urban and rural areas, asked to testify about transportation needs in their communities.

He said Gwinnett is proud that none of the 10 most crash-prone intersections in the counties served by the Atlanta Regional Commission are located in the county, despite the presence of more than 600,000 registered vehicles.

Bannister said the county has spent about 40 percent of its SPLOST revenue on transportation improvements. Yet, he said Gwinnett lags behind "peer" counties in other states in lane-miles per capita.

Earlier on Thursday, Georgia Transportation Commissioner Harold Linnenkohl opened the study committee's deliberations by outlining the state's growing transportation needs.

He said that, saddled with a gasoline tax that isn't keeping pace with either inflation or population growth, Georgia is falling behind in maintaining roads and bridges.

According to Linnenkohl, only 16 percent of state highways will be in excellent or good condition in 2013, down from 63 percent last year.

He said nearly 30 percent of the state's bridges will be structurally deficient by 2013.

That deterioration is occurring even while the state's road building budget soars from about $1 billion in 2004 to $2.7 billion this year, Linnenkohl said.

"The needs far outweigh the projected and available resources," he said.

But Bannister cautioned the committee against abandoning the gasoline tax and becoming completely reliant upon sales taxes to fund highway projects. He said sales tax revenues tend to go up and down with business cycles.

"Gasoline consumption tends to be steady," he said.

Mike Evans, chairman of the State Transportation Board, said Georgia's transportation needs have reached a critical point.

He lawmakers must find more money for transportation or continue losing thousands of jobs to states with less traffic congestion.

"It's hard to quantify how many companies don't come or even consider coming to Georgia," Evans said. "It gets to a point where you can't afford not to do anything if you want economic development."