Legislature passes historic transportation funding deal

ATLANTA -- The House and the Senate overcame years of struggle and approved a historic transportation funding bill on Wednesday, delivering on a plan that would allow Georgia voters to decide whether to hike the sales tax by one cent to pay for roads, bridges and rail projects.

The Senate voted 43-8 for passage Wednesday night. In the House the vote was 141-29. It now moves to Gov. Sonny Perdue. A spokesman expressed support but said the governor needed to review the final measure.

Legislators have struggled for years to strike a deal on transportation, bidding in particular to end some of the worst gridlock in the nation in metro Atlanta and in Georgia, the ninth-largest state. Business leaders have pressed hard for a transportation funding plan, saying the state's spending has not kept pace with its explosive growth. Supporters say more money is needed to keep and attract businesses to the state, despite critics who say the bill focuses too heavily on the state capital and punishes its public transit system.

Under the plan, Georgians would vote during the 2012 presidential primary on whether to increase the sales tax for transportation. The state would be broken into regions. Only regions that approve the sales tax increase would have the money to spend.

The bill would also give MARTA more flexibility to spend its reserve money on new projects.

Senate Transportation Chairman Jeff Mullis called the bill ''history in the making.''

''This is three years of work with so many people involved,'' the Chickamauga Republican said. ''It's not perfect ... but it's a step forward.''

Despite the measure's supporters, Democrats assailed the plan. They said it will be four years at least before Georgia ever sees any additional money and that the legislation failed to do enough to help MARTA, Atlanta's struggling mass transit system.

The measure came together with support in the House and Senate, as well as the governor's office. But supporters made a point to recognize the efforts of newly elected Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, praised as integral to the success of the legislation.

''He gets it,'' Mullis said of Reed, who spent time in the House and Senate before heading to City Hall. ''He has a vision ... to move Georgia forward.''

Reed spent much of Wednesday in the Capitol hallways lobbying his former colleagues in both chambers. After the vote, he said the legislation was the best possible deal.

''We moved today to get this off the table,'' Reed said. ''As we advocate for Georgia in Washington, the question always comes up, 'What has Georgia done towards a long-term transportation strategy?' We're going to leave with a bill not everybody is happy with. It's not the bill I would've written, but it is a much better bill than we had before.''

The logjam on transportation broke this year after Perdue finally threw his support behind the regional sales tax proposal. He explained that after pushing through a bill to overhaul the state Department of Transportation's troubled bureaucracy he now has confidence any additional money would be spent wisely.

Spending on transportation in Georgia has lagged well behind the state's explosive population growth. Georgia spends the second lowest per capita in the country on transportation, ahead of only Tennessee. Road projects in Georgia are funded mostly with money from the state's gasoline tax, but those revenues have tumbled amid recession.

''Folks, we're missing out on a great opportunity,'' House Minority Leader DuBose Porter told lawmakers. ''What is our message to the world? That we still don't have the political will to solve the problem.''

Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said MARTA has long been treated differently at the Capitol.

''MARTA continues to be an asset that is played like a puppet on a string,'' Fort said.

But Republicans said the bill was a long time coming and represented a hard-fought compromise that balanced the needs of Atlanta's congested roads and rural Georgia's thirst for economic development.

House Speaker David Ralston took the unusual step of speaking from the well in support of the bill -- the first time he's done so since taking the gavel in January. He urged legislators to look past regional differences that have doomed the measure in past years and unite behind a proposal that would fuel the state's economy.

''I'm asking you on behalf of the future here to vote for something that will move this state forward together rather than keeping us divided,'' the Blue Ridge Republican said.