Transportation funding panel facing tough choices

ATLANTA - For three months, Georgia lawmakers looking for a way out of a transportation funding crunch facing the state have been meeting in far-flung communities away from the eyes of the Capitol media.

Members of a House-Senate study committee have heard from local officials and obscure out-of-state transportation bureaucrats in Savannah, Columbus, Dalton and Valdosta.

But on Monday and Tuesday, the panel will be the center of attention when it holds its final hearings at the Capitol Education Center right across from the Gold Dome.

And, just in case anyone thought transportation funding isn't vital, the list of speakers released on Friday includes Gov. Sonny Perdue, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker Glenn Richardson.

"It's kind of like a 'Who's Who' here," said Tom Bauer, a lobbyist for the Georgia Transit Association. "It's pretty much an indication that there are some serious issues going on."

Transportation funding has been a nagging concern for years, as Georgia's second-lowest gasoline tax in the nation failed to keep up with the highway and transit needs of a growing population.

But it moved near the top of the state's priority list late last year when the Department of Transportation revealed a projected $7.7 billion shortfall in funding for identified highway and transit projects.

Since then, many have fallen out of the agency's six-year planning schedule, a worrisome development for lawmakers representing districts where those roads were to be built.

DOT officials have spent years lobbying the legislature for a tax increase, generally to a cool reception from politicians looking to the next election.

Competing plans

But two tax proposals did get serious consideration during this year's General Assembly session.

Business leaders primarily from metro Atlanta backed legislation to allow one or more counties to band together and put a regional sales tax referendum on the ballot to raise funds for transportation projects in those communities.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, introduced a second plan calling for a 1 percent statewide sales tax that would be dedicated to transportation.

While neither produced a vote, hearings on the bills led to the formation of the study committee.

The choice the panel faces between this week and the start of the 2008 legislative session in January is whether to recommend raising taxes or finding other ways to foot the bill.

Thus far, majority Republicans haven't shown any signs of approving higher taxes for transportation or anything else.

In fact, tax reform is another key issue GOP leaders are vowing to tackle this winter, and the options on the table include rolling back or eliminating property and/or income taxes.

"We're not about to pass a tax increase right now," Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, a member of the study committee, said during its kickoff meeting back in June.

During the sessions since then, the panel has heard testimony on ways to get the private sector more involved in financing transportation projects to offset the need for tax dollars.

Alternatives include creating a state infrastructure bank that could leverage more federal money, negotiating concessions with highway contractors interested in doing business with the DOT and expanding the use of public-private initiatives.

Lawmakers have passed two bills in recent years allowing PPIs, major highway projects financed and built by private companies, which then recover their investment by charging tolls.

"Other states have been more aggressive on public-private than we have," said Rep. Donna Sheldon, R-Dacula, a member of the study committee.

Efficiency push

Republicans also are counting on finding greater efficiencies from the DOT to reduce the costs of road building.

An audit of the agency's operations requested by Cagle and Richardson is due to be completed next month.

"Delays for various reasons are a constant struggle within the DOT," the lieutenant governor said. "In the days of skyrocketing right-of-way and construction materials costs, these delays can easily send the cost of a project soaring."

State Transportation Board member David Doss said he welcomed the audit as an opportunity to build on the improvements the DOT already has made in the last several years.

But Doss said there's no way the agency can streamline enough to plug the huge funding gap Georgia faces.

Sen. Doug Stoner of Smyrna, one of two Democrats on the eight-member study committee, said there's also no way the private sector alone can solve the problem.

"There's not enough private equity to invest because not every project makes sense to the private sector," he said. "We're not building (toll) lanes from Hazlehurst to Waycross."

Stoner said that, at the minimum, he plans to introduce legislation this winter providing - subject to referendum - a regional transportation sales tax for metro Atlanta.

New coalition

He and other supporters of a tax hike for roads and transit will have some powerful backers.

A newly formed coalition of diverse interests called Get Georgia Moving will send representatives to Tuesday's session of the study committee to present recommendations.

The coalition has highway contractors, transit agencies, business leaders and local government officials all under one umbrella pushing for more revenue.

"We're one of the fastest growing states in the country and we're cutting $7 billion of capacity projects from our state transportation plan," said Matthew Hicks, a transportation specialist for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. "That's a big issue that has to be addressed."

But Doss said he's worried that so many lawmakers may have bought into the notion that the private sector can bail out the state that they won't be willing to commit more public dollars.

"My fear is the legislators have drunk the Kool-Aid," he said.

If that happens, Doss and others are warning that metro Atlanta will choke on its traffic, ceding Georgia's prominence in this part of the country.

"If (lawmakers) leave town and do nothing ... we should all be prepared for Atlanta and Georgia to become second tier," Doss said. "We will no longer be the economic hub of the Southeast."