ATLANTA — Highly anticipated recommendations released Wednesday leave how Georgians will pay to fund transportation up to legislators to craft — and open for political wrangling between the House and Senate.
Joint Study Committee on Transportation Funding proposals include raising sales tax statewide by 1 percent, or creating a regional special purpose local option sales tax of 1 percent voted on by counties and dedicated to regional transportation projects.
So far, Senate leaders have expressed interest in the regional tax, and House leaders have more interest in a statewide sales tax to boost transportation funds.
“I think there’ll be a negotiated compromise,” said Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, co-chairman of the study committee and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “I’m open-minded as long as it’s not a tax increase.”
Sen. Mullis has expressed interest in a revenue-neutral option that would eliminate the state motor fuel excise tax of 7.5-cents per gallon, and replace it with a sales tax increase to offset the loss — less than 1 percent.
Study Committee Cochairman Rep. Vance Smith Jr., R-Pine Mountain, said he plans within the next week to introduce a statewide funding initiative, but he gave no more details.
Rep. Smith said he expects multiple funding mechanisms to be considered, in the form of constitutional amendments that must have final approval by voters.
He said lawmakers should not wait while new Department of Transportation Commissioner Gena Abraham tries to turn the agency around after years of project and money mismanagement.
“Instead of us waiting, we can be working on a funding mechanism ... and be right there with the money,” Rep. Smith said.
DOT reported last year the state would experience a $7.7 billion transportation funding shortfall over the next six years.
However, Sen. John Douglas, R-Social Circle, who is on the Senate Transportation Committee but wasn’t on the study committee, said the “turbulence” at the DOT should be worked out before the General Assembly considers tax bills for transportation funding.
“I’m not a tax-first person,” he said. “I would like to use the surplus before raising taxes.”
Sen. Mullis, along with Senate Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, have said Georgia voters can most likely expect to vote on ballot referendum in November to create a regional local option sales tax dedicated to transportation projects on which two or more counties band together. The legislature would come back next session to work out the regulations on the procedure.
Officials at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce said they don’t have a “preference” on the proposals yet, but applauded the committee’s work.
“We recognize the need for additional (transportation) funding,” said Charles K. Tarbutton, chairman for the Chamber. “The people of Georgia will have to decide whether they want a statewide or regional funding mechanism.”
North Georgia impact
One of the few specific initiatives recommended was a high-speed rail connecting the Atlanta and Chattanooga airports. The prospect has faced opposition from metro Atlanta in the past.
Sen. Mullis said the joint committee’s recommendation to build a magnetically levitated, high-speed rail line will help the project gain steam, especially since some federal officials are already onboard.
U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Ga., hasn’t reviewed the study committee’s recommendations, but the congressman is already working with Tennessee and Georgia officials to seriously consider the high-speed rail, said Chris Riley, Rep. Deal’s chief of staff.
“(Rep. Deal) considers it one of the top priorities for the regional area and for transportation goals in the future,” Mr. Riley said, adding federal support and funding would be crucial to the project.
An $8 million federal study is under way that includes looking at the feasibility of the rail.
Sen. Mullis said the rail project would rely heavily on federal funds and freight fee subsidies, and the roughly $3 billion cost would not leave Georgia road projects in neglect.
“In Northwest Georgia, the amount of traffic far exceeds the quality of secondary roads,” he said. “We all have different issues. ... We need to move people quicker and safer.”
Rep. Roger Williams, R-Dalton, said he is particularly interested in the public-private partnerships the study committee urged for DOT.
“It’s a good way to move projects along,” said Rep. Williams, saving time and money.
His home of Whitfield County faces uncertainty on a long list of road projects for which local voters approved a SPLOST after the DOT said the state would match local funds. Now, DOT says the money is not there.