Ga. Lawmakers Break Transportation Gridlock
By Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer
Photo illustration courtesy of the Georgia Clean Air Campaign
For a state whose capital city of Atlanta suffers from some of the nation's worst traffic congestion, Georgia has had a difficult time raising funds for highways and transit. Regional rivalries, a pervading anti-tax atmosphere and even personality conflicts among lawmakers all have conspired to keep any kind of ambitious transportation initiative tied up in gridlock.
This year, however, Georgia legislators finally struck a deal, one that Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has said will result in "the biggest capital investment in the last 50 years in the state of Georgia." The plan has a few more hurdles to clear, however. Governor Sonny Perdue still has to sign the bill into law. If he does, it will be at least three more years before new tax dollars begin funding projects aimed at unclogging highways, building up rail and bus capacity or modernizing airports.
The package sent to Perdue is hardly straightforward. The law applies to the whole state, but it divides the state into a dozen regions — including the Atlanta area — that will decide on their own whether to opt in. Officials from each of those regions must come to agreement on which projects they want to fund. Then, it will be up to voters in those regions to decide, in 2012, whether they want to pay for those local projects with a penny hike in their sales tax.
A regional approach
The regional focus is a major component of the Georgia plan. That's a significant development in a state where transportation decisions and local-option sales taxes usually are decided by individual counties. For example, Atlanta's regional rail and bus authority, MARTA, covers only two of the 10 counties that make up the Atlanta region. The go-it-alone approach has led to a patchwork of transit options. Earlier this year, Clayton County, a majority-black suburban county south of Atlanta, stopped all bus service due to budget cuts.
Regional efforts to improve transportation are becoming more common, says David Goldberg, a spokesman for Transportation for America , a coalition that wants to overhaul the country's transportation system. Working regionally, rather than statewide, can be easier politically because it doesn't require people who live in rural areas to fund urban transit systems they never use.
"It gradually has become clear," Goldberg says, "that it's very difficult to get people who don't see a direct stake in what's proposed to vote for (transportation funding) on a statewide basis."
One of the biggest backers of the Georgia bill was the Atlanta Regional Commission, a planning body that represents the capital region's 10 counties, as well as the city of Atlanta. Tom Weyandt, the group's director of comprehensive planning, says Atlanta-area leaders stuck together while pressing their case for transportation funding. At the same time, individual counties also developed their own transportation plans and aligned their goals with regional priorities. Weyandt says that record of cooperation suggests localities can work together to find a mix of projects that voters will approve.
But the regional focus still has many potential pitfalls. Matthew Hicks, a lobbyist for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia , which backed the bill, says coming up with an agreed-upon list of projects could be difficult for some of the 12 designated regions. That may be especially true in regions that include predominantly rural counties, where the penny sales tax hike wouldn't raise a whole lot of money. Under the law, individual counties can't opt out of their region's planning process or the sales tax hike. The region as a whole must act together, whether it's to decide yes or no.
Even in the Atlanta area, the plan could pit the city and inner suburbs against the far reaches of the metro area, says Neill Herring, an environmental lobbyist. The new money can be directed toward new transportation projects, but not to bolster MARTA's beleaguered bus and rail service in Atlanta or nearby towns. Residents in the places served by MARTA already pay an extra sales tax to support public transit, Herring notes, so they will have little reason to want to pay more taxes for projects far out in the suburbs.
Herring also says the regional approach undermines efforts to start rail service between Atlanta and the cities of Macon or Savannah. Those cross-state routes, he says, would require the cooperation of several regions, which could be difficult if local officials concentrate too heavily on provincial concerns and not enough on bigger strategies.
Lawmakers settled on the approach after years of back-and-forth over how to raise and divvy up new funding. At one point, they debated doling out money equally to each of the state's congressional districts. Last year, a transportation bill died in the waning hours of the spring session because the two legislative chambers couldn't agree on an approach. The House insisted on a statewide sales tax; the Senate pressed for regional taxes.
An economic engine
Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle, who acts as the president of the Georgia Senate, says congestion in the Atlanta area has become so bad legislators had no choice but to act. "It's costing us time, it's costing us money and, more importantly," he says, "it is costing us jobs."
From its founding, Atlanta's economy depended on transportation. The city started as a railroad terminus and remains a critical rail hub. Its airport is the world's busiest; both Delta Airlines and United Parcel Service call the area home. One in 10 local jobs depend on freight traffic. And for the sprawling suburbs that lie beyond Atlanta's city limits, interstate highways are a transportation lifeline.
But lately, Georgia has been riding on transportation investments made decades ago, without doing much to update them. The state Department of Transportation's recent strategic plan ( PDF) called this "coasting." In fact, the agency said, Georgia spends less per person on transportation than any state other than Tennessee. Without action, the department warned, the state would become less attractive to businesses, because workers could not get to their jobs within a reasonable time.
Policymakers have understood this for some time. But until this year, the General Assembly was unable to do anything about it. The leaders of the state House and state Senate — both controlled by Republicans — have clashed for years over the issue. The resignation of former House Speaker Glenn Richardson last winter helped clear the way for the deal to be struck. So did a change of heart from Governor Perdue, also a Republican. Perdue once opposed the transportation initiative. But he outlined the basis of a deal early this year, his last as governor.
Timing also made the potential tax increases more palatable to legislators. Lawmakers say putting the vote off for another two years gives time for regions to agree on the lists of projects they want to fund. But delaying the vote could improve the chances of those tax hikes passing, too. "There's really not an appetite right now (to raise taxes)," says Cagle. "The economy has not rebounded in a way that voters, quite candidly, are prepared to make this type of investment. In 2012, I think the voters will be in a position to see the need and the desire to make this type of investment in infrastructure."