Congestion continues to be a problem in the Atlanta area, but a means to address it first ran into trouble because it was a few minutes early.
Two years ago the Georgia Senate was on the brink of passing a transportation funding bill when it was defeated by three votes with 15 minutes left on the voting clock.
“I have to assume [the president of the Senate] thought the votes were there when he called it up, so that was an unfortunate situation,” Chick Krautler, executive director of the Altanta Regional Commission, told Roads & Bridges.
That situation did not improve much the next year, when a measure to increase the state sales tax by 1% stalled in committee. Those in the House wanted the tax to be statewide, while the Senate preferred a regional approach.
“It came down to the last night and the conference committees just could not reach an agreement,” said Krautler.
So Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue decided to reach out during his last year in office, offering up a hybrid transportation bill in 2010 that would take the sales-tax hike to the voters on a regional basis. People in Georgia’s 12 planning regions would go to the polls simultaneously in 2012 to decide the measure’s fate. Those areas that approved the referendum would be the ones receiving the transportation funding. However, voters would be choosing from a list of projects assembled by local officials.
Some state leaders thought the compromise would be enough to finally create an increase in infrastructure dollars, but as of March 22 that bill was considered dead because it had not made it out of the rules committee.
So in a bizarre twist of political fate, Georgia state lawmakers were looking at the possibility of passing the bill that stalled in 2009. Because the state runs on a two-year legislative session, measures that were held up in conference committees are still alive one year later. That measure would set up the sales-tax referendum in the metro Atlanta area, while the rest of the state formed groups of counties for their own regional vote.
However, if the re-entry fails then Georgia could be facing a third straight year of distressed transportation funding levels. Georgia ranks 49th in the U.S. when it comes to providing financial aid to roads, bridges and transit. The state constitution limits money produced by the 71?2-cent gas tax and 3% sales tax to be used for road and bridge construction only. Those at the local level, with the help of a small dose of federal cash, carry the burden of supporting transit, which is on the verge of slipping into a service coma. Local transit systems in Clayton County may be reduced to a few critical routes, and MARTA is under financial duress.
The American Recovery & Reinvestment Act helped in the form of road maintenance, but did little to address the congestion crisis. Georgia also was one of seven states to be denied TIGER grants and did not receive any federal money for high-speed rail.
Krautler said the passage of the 1% sales tax increase could generate almost $8 billion over a 10-year period for the Atlanta area alone, and the addition of federal funding could up the pot to as much as $13 billion. The urban center, however, is looking at an endless line of needed projects.
“We are probably sitting on $100 billion of unfunded projects, so $10 billion gives us a shot in the arm, but it certainly does not solve our problems.
“We are consistently ranked third or fourth worst in terms of commutes,” added Krautler, “so I think people would like to see some action, but the legislators are absolutely convinced that the people do not want to see the gas tax increased. The problem is there is just no leadership.”