By Erin Fuchs and Cliff Hightower
Stagnant gas tax reserves and dwindling transportation funds from the federal government have created a need for more state money for roads projects, legislators say.
"Federal money is drying up," said Georgia state Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain. "As far as the gas tax, with all the new bio-fuels and hybrid cars, I just see gas tax as something of the past."
The federal government has cut billions of dollars its contributions to state transportation budgets since 2005, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
In Tennessee, for example, the U.S. government has taken a total of $171.4 million from the state's transportation budget since December 2005, said Julie Oakes, Tennessee Department of Transportation spokeswoman.
"We're certainly no different from any other state," Ms. Oakes said. "We're all facing funding issues."
Gerald Nicely, commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, said DOT revenue has grown 1 percent a year, while costs have grown 3 percent to 4 percent annually.
"Our revenues are not keeping up with the pace of costs," Commissioner Nicely said.
At the same time federal funding is being cut, high gas prices at the pump have made legislators hesitant to raise fuel taxes and further pinch consumers.
Gas tax rates haven't gone up in Tennessee and Georgia in 18 and 28 years, respectively.
Tennessee Rep. Phillip Pinion, D-Union City, said he expects the public would react strongly against a higher fuel tax because, "Gasoline prices have been so volatile."
Some consumers may see it differently.
Cleveland, Tenn., resident and gas station attendant Chris Lea said the already sky-high gas prices would make him oblivious to a few extra tax pennies on the gallon.
"Now everyone is accustomed to paying so much for gas, they (wouldn't) notice," he said.
Cleveland, Tenn., resident Janet Nott said that even though she buys her gas in Georgia because the tax is lower there, she wouldn't mind if they raised it.
"I wouldn't have a problem with a tax to repair highways, especially with that bridge collapsing," Ms. Nott said, referring to the tragedy that happened earlier this month in Minneapolis, Minn.
Even though other residents see the need for road improvements, many remain opposed to higher gas prices to pay for them.
Dalton, Ga., resident A.J. Kocher simply said, "I don't like taxes."
Some legislators say raising the gas tax wouldn't generate enough revenue for the growing populations in Georgia and Tennessee.
"You just can't raise the gas tax high enough to ... build the roads we need," said Rep. Smith, who co-chaired a funding study commission Georgia lawmakers held in Dalton.
To figure out how to generate this revenue, lawmakers from both states created the summer study groups, where they are consulting with transportation experts on transportation funding.
"(We're) hunting for new ways to keep our bridges from falling down, to keep paving roads," Rep. Pinion said.
Since June, the Georgia General Assembly has been convening the Joint Senate and House Transportation Funding Study, like the one in Dalton on Monday and Tuesday.
Georgia lawmakers are looking at alternatives such as high occupancy toll lanes, where drivers pay to drive in less congested lanes. They are also considering public-private partnerships -- toll roads built, in part, with private money.
"We can partner with the private sector," said Carrie Hamblin, a Georgia Department of Transportation spokeswoman, who attended the study meeting. "They can bring private equity to the table to help build a project."
There was a similar meeting of the joint Tennessee House and Transportation Study Committee on Wednesday, with legislators also discussing tolling and public-private partnerships.
"Whatever we need, let's take a look at it," Rep. Pinion said, adding that "Our whole transportation system is about to fall apart" if new sources of funding aren't found.
Kent Starwalt, executive director of the Tennessee Road Builders Association, attended the meeting and said his group does not advocate one particular way of funding.
Mr. Starwalt acknowledges, however, there is a road-funding problem. Public-private partnerships and toll roads can help compensate for this shortage of road money, he said.
But he said legislators shouldn't give up on the gas tax. "Looking at the fuel tax makes the most sense, because the mechanism is already there," he said.
E-mail Erin Fuchs at firstname.lastname@example.org
E-mail Cliff Hightower at email@example.com
HOW THEY COMPARE
* Fuel tax in Georgia: 7.5 cents a gallon, plus a 4 percent sales tax on each dollar; with current prices, Georgians are paying about 18.6 cents per gallon
* Fuel tax in Tennessee: 21.4 cents per gallon
Sources: Georgia Department of Transportation, Tennessee Department of Transportation