With regional SPLOST in place, where next for transportation?

Benita Dodd's picture

The Georgia Legislature has finally approved a funding mechanism for transportation. Next comes the jockeying for placement on project lists among advocates, agencies and authorities for the various modes.

Just because there’s finally an opportunity for transportation funding, however, doesn’t mean throwing good money after bad. Taxpayers must be vigilant and demand sound solutions and bang for their buck – or their 1 percent sales tax, to be precise.

On the bright side, Georgia’s Transportation Investment Act of 2010 (HB 277) would spur cost-sharing through a new Coordinating Committee for Rural and Human Services Transportation representing the State School Superintendent and the departments of Transportation, Human Services, Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, Community Health, Labor, Community Affairs and the Governor’s Development Council.

It provides some financial relief for the struggling Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) and creates a Transit Governance Study Commission comprising legislators and representatives of regional organizations and agencies to investigate combining all the regional transportation entities into one.

Most important is the creation of 12 districts in which a “special district transportation sales and use tax of 1 percent” can be imposed for 10 years – and renewed.

“The General Assembly intends through the creation of such special districts to enable the citizens within each district to decide in an election whether to authorize the imposition of a special district transportation sales and use tax to fund the projects on an investment list collaboratively developed by the affected local governments and the state,” the legislation states.

Among the exemptions from the tax are energy used in the manufacturing process, jet fuel at Atlanta’s airport, and locomotive and motor vehicle fuel. But the tax will apply to the first $5,000 in an automobile sale or lease, which is likely have the biggest impact on lower-income buyers who can least afford the added burden.

The legislation has a series of deadlines. The state transportation planning director must provide local governments in each special district with recommended criteria to develop an investment list of projects and programs; by Aug. 15, 2011, he or she must deliver to them a draft investment (transportation project) list.

The list must include a statement of the “specific public benefits” of each project on the investment list. “Examples of specific benefits include, but are not limited to, congestion mitigation, increased lane capacity, public safety and economic development.”

The problem: “’Project’ means, without limitation, any new or existing airports, bike lanes, bridges, bus and rail mass transit systems, freight and passenger rail, pedestrian facilities, ports, roads, terminals, and all activities and structures useful and incident to providing, operating and maintaining the same. The term shall also include direct appropriations to a local government for the purpose of serving as a local match for state or federal funding.”

Oh, yes, and the kitchen sink.

The stick: The district representatives (“roundtable”) must approve the investment list by Oct. 11, 2011, or a “special gridlock” is declared and the district may not hold a public referendum for another two years.

Local governments unable to come to agreement must ante up a 50 percent match for local DOT grants “until the special district roundtable approves an investment list meeting the special district’s investment criteria and an election (referendum) is held within the special district.”

The roundtable must hold at least two public hearings. If, during the referendum, voters reject the sales tax, the local match required is 30 percent in that district.

The carrot? The match is 10 percent on projects if voters approve the tax in a referendum, to take place in 2012 on the day of the statewide primary elections.

There are huge challenges for Georgia. The state needs to invest in the freight network; eliminate the “last mile” bottleneck at the Savannah port and focus on reducing congestion in the metro Atlanta area, as well as routine road maintenance and repairs. The federal government not only has warned that funding is dwindling, but the Secretary of Transportation maintains that “mobility” is less of a concern than “livability” – which may mean even less funding toward Georgia’s road and freight network.

There are good signs, too. In the summer, construction begins on the high-occupancy toll (HOT) lane demonstration project on Interstate 85 in metro Atlanta. The state continues to inch toward the perfect public-private partnership. (Bob Carr, former premier of New South Wales, Australia, will be in town May 14 to recount his conversion from an opponent to proponent of PPPs).

It’s encouraging that the state finally has a funding avenue for transportation and the “two Georgias” seem to be moving closer together.

Ultimately, however, unless policy-makers ensure that mobility and congestion relief are the priorities in funding projects, “all structures useful and incident” and other nebulous phrases in the law could gridlock transportation policy, hinder economic progress and disenchant voters.

[Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.] © Georgia Public Policy Foundation (April 30, 2010).

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