After years of kicking the can and ignoring the problem, Georgia's leadership finally sounds like it's ready to do something about transportation. But don't hold your breath.
Gov. Sonny Perdue today said he'd support a measure that would allow regions to vote on whether they wanted a one-cent sales tax hike to pay for much-needed roads, transit and bridges in their own communities. And regardless of whether that happens, the governor's offered $300 million in bond funding to pay for transportation projects in the meantime and years to come.
Perdue's announcement comes after years of inaction by the executive and legislative branches on transportation issues. For the last two years, the House and Senate have debated whether transportation funding should be raised via a statewide or regional sales tax. Perdue refused to support either proposal until the transportation planning power structure was reorganized. Everyone dithered and the problem became worse.
But things changed today.
The governor's proposal, which is still being finalized, would place a one-cent sales tax referendum on the 2012 ballot. Voters across the state would weigh in on the measure, but votes would be tabulated in 12 "transportation districts" made up of individual counties. (A map of the districts is embedded after the jump).
If the majority of a region's voters don't approve the proposal, then a one-cent sales tax could not be levied in that region. Counties could not opt out of the sales tax. (We're digging into what that could mean for DeKalb County, which on Jan. 5 voiced its opposition to any additional taxes for transportation, or the City of Atlanta, which already pays extra pennies for MARTA and a $4 billion sewer overhaul.)
The district would decide what projects would be built with the funding and all revenues generated from the sales tax would be spent on projects within that region. Metro Atlanta's district would include Cherokee, Cobb, Douglas, Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Fayette, Clayton, Henry and Rockdale Counties. According to the Atlanta Regional Commission, a penny sales tax in that region could generate an estimated $7.6 billion over 10 years.
Perdue today also said his budget proposal which he plans to drop on lawmakers tomorrow as they head out of town would include $300 million in bond funding to pay for transportation projects throughout the state. It would be the first of a 10 annual funding installments that would total $3 billion. Perdue, who's in his final year in office, acknowledged that there's no guarantee that future lawmakers would follow suit. Bonds would be paid back from the general fund, rather than the gas tax, which have seen a steady decline over the years. (That switch, the Atlanta Business Chronicle's Dave Williams notes, would also allow bond funding to possibly go toward rail and bus projects. According to state law, gas taxes can only be spent on roads and bridges.)
A list of projects plucked from the recently unveiled statewide transportation plan and approved by Georgia Department of Transportation Planning Director Todd Long will be included in Perdue's budget. State lawmakers must approve the projects. We'll post when we find out what projects made the list.
Perdue's rationale for placing the regional funding proposal on the ballot in 2012 rather than this November, as some lawmakers have proposed in the past comes down to economics and planning. He says the extra years will allow more time for the economy to recover and transportation planning honchos to prepare a project list that will tell voters what to expect from the sales tax hike. (The AJC's Jim Galloway says there might also be some politics involved as well.)
But as we said: don't hold your breath. While Perdue's seal of approval gives his proposals a greater chance of becoming reality, there's no telling what chicanery could take place once lawmakers and their varied interests get their hands on the measures. There are also a host of wrinkles that are yet to be ironed out. Stay tuned.
Here's a map of the proposed "transportation districts," provided by Perdue's office:
(Perdue file photo by Joeff Davis)
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