Lawmakers still face numerous transportation funding choices
New report suggests regional, statewide options

ATLANTA - Georgia's transportation needs are so glaring that there's room for a wide array of improvements, from HOT lanes to passenger rail, a legislative study committee recommended Wednesday.

But the panel did not settle on how to pay for those projects, instead offering various state and regional approaches for the full legislature to choose from.

"Our job is to give a recommendation without a lot of detail, and that's what we've done," said Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and co-chairman of the study committee. "The details will be in the legislation."

Mullis and Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, the panel's other co-chairman, promised to introduce several bills during the next two weeks calling for either putting more tax revenue statewide toward transportation improvements, allowing two or more adjacent counties to levy a regional one-cent sales tax for transportation, or both.

All of those measures would be subject to voter approval.

"At some point in time, we're going to have to ask the people whether they're willing to fund transportation," said Smith, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

While traffic congestion in metro Atlanta has been growing worse for years, the lack of money to tackle the problem began to come to a head late in 2006, when the state Department of Transportation revealed an estimated $7.7 billion gap between the costs of needed improvements and the available funding.

A coalition of more than 50 business, civic and environmental groups formed during last year's legislative session to push for solutions.

Lawmakers considered both regional and statewide funding bills last year but couldn't pull the trigger. Instead, the General Assembly created the study committee, which met across the state last summer to look for answers.

Gov. Sonny Perdue asked the legislature during his State of the State address two weeks ago for $50 million to create a state infrastructure bank, a recommendation the study committee supported in its report.

Beyond that, the governor has said it would be premature to spend more money on road and transit projects until the new commissioner at the Georgia Department of Transportation, Gena Abraham, has had a chance to reform the agency's bureaucratic inefficiencies, as she has vowed to do.

But Charles Tarbutton, chairman of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, a member of the Get Georgia Moving Coalition, said the state has the wherewithal to overhaul the DOT and pursue new transportation funding sources at the same time.

"We understand the challenges facing (DOT)," said Tarbutton, assistant vice president of the Sandersville Railroad Co. "But we feel very confident that reform and funding can and should be addressed concurrently, so that 18 to 24 months from now, an improved DOT will have the resources needed to move forward with the infrastructure projects this state needs."

Rep. Donna Sheldon, R-Dacula, a member of the study committee, said the first bill that will emerge from the panel's report will seek to require the DOT to work with other transportation planning agencies to develop a statewide transportation plan. Abraham already has said that's her top priority.

Other bills are expected to include both the regional sales tax proposal and two or more options for a statewide transportation tax.

"There's not a silver bullet," Sheldon said. "It's going to take several approaches to solve our transportation challenges in Georgia."

The report also recommends several ways of speeding up construction of highway projects, including public-private initiatives.

And it suggests specific types of projects to relieve traffic gridlock, including converting high-occupancy vehicle lanes into HOT lanes, which allow single-occupant vehicles if the driver pays a toll.

The study committee also recommends a resolution urging that transit be included in the statewide transportation plan.

However, the only passenger rail project the report specifically supports is a proposed high-speed line connecting Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport with the airport in Chattanooga, Tenn.