Transportation might be improving in Georgia. For real this time.
Year after year, state legislators propose plans to loosen Atlanta's famous traffic jams, offer more public transportation and build and improve more highways and bridges.
And, year after year, those plans fall flat. Or they get neutered.
Georgia 2014 Transportation ReportView
But this time, for real, maybe, Georgia leaders are going to pour money into the transportation system. And of course, one way or another, that money will come from someone: you, friendly taxpayer.
Last year, the Legislature created a joint study committee to examine how the state could improve transportation. The committee came back with a proposal: Increase funding by $1 billion to $1.5 billion. By comparison, the Georgia Department of Transportation received $2 billion this fiscal year.
The committee reported that Georgia has the country's 10th-busiest road system and fourth-busiest container port. But, according to GDOT, 48 states spend more money per capita on their roads than Georgia does.
If lawmakers vote to increase spending, the committee has several suggested solutions. Among them:
Of the 4 percent sales tax on each gallon of gas, 3 percent goes to GDOT and 1 percent goes to the state's general fund. Lawmakers could change this balance, giving all 4 percent to GDOT.
The sales tax is atop a separate excise tax of 7.5 cents per gallon. Lawmakers could drop the 4 percent sales tax and increase the excise rate to 22 to 25 cents per gallon.
Lawmakers could implement a 1-cent statewide sales tax.
They could increase the motor fuel tax on gas, unchanged since 1971, by 10 cents a gallon.
They could establish a road usage fee for alternative vehicles, create new toll lanes and commit more money to transit.
But for state legislators in the Peach State's northwest corner, the issues of transportation funding is a complicated dance.
On the one hand, the Republican establishment wants that increased funding. Top lawmakers spent about six months last year studying the issue, and Gov. Nathan Deal mentioned the need for transportation improvements in two speeches on the first week of this legislative season.
"We must maintain and improve our roads and bridges," Deal said during his State of the State speech on Jan. 14. "We must provide congestion relief. And we must prepare for more freight and more businesses. We can debate how much it will cost to do something, but let us not forget how much it will cost to do nothing."
On the other hand, whenever people talk about the issue, they don't drop city names like Ringgold, LaFayette and Trenton. They talk about Atlanta and Savannah, where the state and federal governments have spent about $600 million to deepen its port, which will let bigger ships bring more cargo into Georgia, which will lead to more trucks driving on the roads with that cargo.
So local taxpayers might see themselves paying more for fuel but not feel any of the benefits coming directly back to their communities.
What's more, the most reliable public opinion poll -- an actual election -- indicates that Northwest Georgia doesn't want to spend money on this issue. During a July 2012 referendum on whether to increase sales tax to fund transportation improvements, the people of Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade and Walker counties voted against the plan by a combined 57 percent. Throughout Georgia, only three of the state's 12 regions approved of the sales tax increase that year.
So how does a representative sell the issue before voting for it this year? A "trickle-down" effect, some lawmakers say. If transportation improves in Atlanta, for example, more businesses will go there.
Those businesses will generate more sales tax, which means more money for Northwest Georgia institutions, like public education.
"I don't care for the fact that we're kind of up here in a rural area that doesn't get a whole lot," said Rep. John Deffenbaugh, R-Lookout Mountain, a member of the House Transportation Committee. "But the majority of the people are in Atlanta, Savannah, Columbus, Augusta, Macon -- places like that. As they rise, we all can rise from it."
Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold, agreed: "It's a concern to me, too. But the way metro Atlanta goes, the way a lot of this state is going to go. We really need that revenue generator."
Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, said the state has to increase funding for its highways and bridges. But he doesn't believe a motor fuel tax is the answer.
Mullis, former chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said people don't drive as much as they used to. And when they do drive, they're operating more fuel-efficient vehicles. People just don't spend as much on fuel as they once did. He isn't sure of the solution.
"Something has to be done to improve our infrastructure," he said, "not only in Georgia but in Tennessee and in the United States of America."
In Tennessee, the Comptroller's Office recently reported that the state's fuel tax revenues had stagnated and would not be enough to maintain the road system. In both states, lawmakers rely more on federal money than on state funding to maintain transportation infrastructure.
But Deffenbaugh does not believe the federal government will be the answer to Georgia's current problem. If transportation is going to improve, he said, the state is going to have to raise the money.
Still, he struggles to think of where Georgia can produce an extra $1 billion per year. He wonders whether lawmakers can raise it incrementally, working their way up toward that figure.
Weldon was also surprised by the joint study committee's recommendation.
"That's hard to swallow," Weldon said. "I'd like to see some of the numbers behind it just to sway my concerns."
Weldon is concerned that an increase in fuel taxes could actually result in less money for the state. What if Georgia's prices become 50 cents higher per gallon than in Tennessee or South Carolina? What if truckers decide to fill up there before entering Georgia?
"We've got to be careful not to upset the balance of competition," he said.
As a member of the Transportation Committee, which is separate from the joint study committee, Deffenbaugh has heard about 20 total solutions. He isn't sure which one is the best right now, and he won't predict which ones lawmakers will implement.
He expects the best solution to solidify in about a month, as members of his committee bounce ideas off each other. In addition to a potential tax increase, he said, the state could try to rearrange funds.
But that puts other agencies at risk. He isn't sure who would be on the chopping block.
"I'm not one for raising taxes," he said. "But I'm also not one for running on roads that need to be paved."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@times freepress.com or at 423-757-6476.