ATLANTA -- Gov. Sonny Perdue signed a long-awaited transportation bill on Wednesday that will allow Georgia voters to decide whether to hike the sales tax to pay for roads and infrastructure.
The legislation, three years in the making, divides Georgia into 12 regions and will ask voters during the 2012 presidential primary whether to hike the sales tax by 1 cent to pay for roads, bridges and rail projects in that part of the state. Only those regions that approve the sales tax increase would have the money to spend.
The bill would also give MARTA, metro Atlanta's struggling public transit system, more flexibility to spend its reserve money on new projects.
"I think this approach makes sense because it connects," Perdue said. "It connects our local communities with our economic development centers and coordinates neighbors in developing a plan that will unlock opportunities for their region and their local economy."
The governor said he plans to travel the state to campaign for the bill.
Supporters of the bill said during the legislative session that 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.
The governor was flanked by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, House Speaker David Ralston, other legislators and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed as he signed the bill in his office at the state Capitol.
"A lot of years' work is being celebrated here today, a lot of work by a lot of people," Ralston said.
Perdue, Cagle and Ralston all recognized the efforts by Reed -- who served in the House and Senate before becoming mayor -- to help his former colleagues reach a consensus.
After three years of trying to come up with a plan to help end some of the worst gridlock in the nation, legislators broke through a logjam on transportation at the end of this year's session.
Business leaders, who say the state's transportation spending has not kept pace with its explosive growth, had been pushing for action on a transportation plan for several years.
"This long effort has been rewarded with legislation that will allow metro Atlanta to begin to address our lagging transportation infrastructure," said Dave Stockert, chair of the Metro Atlanta Chamber's transportation policy committee, in a statement. "It shows companies interested in moving here that we are working to solve our transportation issues."
Even though the bill passed both houses of the Legislature with wide margins, Democrats lamented that it will be at least four years before Georgia ever sees any additional money and that the legislation failed to do enough to help MARTA.
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 and increased fuel efficiency.