Bank CEO: Status quo leaves little for new roads

ATLANTA - Maintaining Georgia's transportation system and paying off existing projects is eating up such a huge portion of the state's gasoline tax revenue that there's little room for new construction, an Atlanta business leader said Monday.

"(That's) a difficult situation considering how fast we're growing," Bill Linginfelter, Georgia CEO for Wachovia Bank, told members of a legislative study committee looking for solutions to the state's transportation funding crunch.

"We simply have to get more funding and get it quickly. Every part of Georgia has unmet transportation needs."

Linginfelter, chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce's transportation committee, testified before a panel of legislators that has held meetings across the state for the last three months.

Lawmakers have heard hours of testimony about the problem - including a projected $7.7 billion six-year shortfall in needed transportation projects - and has weighed various potential solutions.

But numbers Linginfelter presented cast the issue in a particularly somber light.

He cited state Department of Transportation data showing that almost 95 percent of Georgia's gasoline tax money is being used either for current operations, including road and bridge maintenance, or for debt service on existing projects.

That leaves just more than 5 percent of the tax revenues for the fourth-fastest growing state in the country to build new highways and expand transit systems.

Just last week, the Texas Transportation Institute reported that the average metro-Atlanta driver spends more hours stuck in traffic each year than drivers in all but one of the nation's urban areas.

Gov. Sonny Perdue, who also addressed the study committee on Monday, said traffic congestion has become a quality of life concern.

"It has to do with how much time we have to spend with our families and with how robust our economy is," he said.

Several speakers stressed the need for Georgia to get away from depending on the gasoline tax.

For one thing, gas tax revenues are expected to decline dramatically in coming decades as governments move to tighten fuel-efficiency standards and as more Americans buy vehicles powered by alternative means.

Linginfelter said the metro chamber backs regional sales tax proposals as the best solution.

On the other hand, State Transportation Board member David Doss pitched his "Big Idea," a plan to raise $22.5 billion over 10 years with a statewide 1 percent sales tax increase.

Doss said it would raise enough money for projects across Georgia, including an east-west connector in metro Atlanta's far northern suburbs and a north-south tunnel below downtown Atlanta.

"Georgia has a statewide transportation funding crisis," he said. "It requires a statewide solution."

But Linginfelter said research in other states shows that voters are more likely to support regional sales tax increases than raising sales taxes statewide.

Sen. Chip Pearson, R-Dawsonville, a member of the committee, questioned the wisdom of lawmakers supporting any form of tax increase when, due to inefficiency and burdensome federal regulations, the DOT typically takes years to bring even the simplest project into service.

"If we come up with these additional funds, what assurance do we have that these funds are going to be turned into asphalt, concrete and bridges?" he asked.

State Transportation Board Chairman Mike Evans said the agency's efficiency has improved greatly during his five years on the board and continues to get better.

"We know this department is a long way from perfect," he said. "(But) I promise you, this board is going to make sure every dollar we spend gets spent right."