Georgians outside Atlanta who have paid attention to the state’s priorities in water allocation would not likely mourn Thursday’s legislative demise of a statewide sales tax for transportation improvements.
Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, and his Senate counterpart Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, Transportation Committee chairs in their respective chambers, are pushing for something a bit closer to home rule, and home funding, of transportation projects.
"We’re moving toward an approach that uses local control with a regional structure," said Mullis. "We believe we’re on the right track."
Sharing that track with them is a diverse coalition of private and public interests, including local governments, road builders, environmentalists, public transit advocates and a nonprofit organization called Georgians for Better Transportation (www.g4bt.com), all gathered under a tent called Get Georgia Moving (www.getgeorgiamoving.com).
The challenge is obvious to anybody who has done much driving in Georgia, and not just around Atlanta. As Georgians for Better Transportation President Mike Kenn (a name familiar to longtime Falcons fans) noted in a meeting this week with our editorial board, Georgia is the third-fastest-growing state in the U.S., and ranks rock bottom in per-capita transportation spending. The shortage in transportation funding (and planning) has been obvious for years already; as the state’s population continues to grow, the disparity between transportation needs and transportation resources will only get worse.
The approach favored by Smith and Mullis, and backed, at least in general outline, by the interests and organizations of Get Georgia Moving, would divide the state into transportation districts where officials could propose, and voters could approve or reject, sales taxes for transportation projects in those areas.
The obvious advantage is that unlike a statewide sales tax, the money would not all flow to Atlanta to be disbursed to projects as state officials see fit to fund them. Among the obvious disadvantages are the logistical challenges of getting a cluster of counties and communities -- perhaps with common transportation interests, but vastly different fiscal and political circumstances -- to support a cross-jurisdictional tax. It would also mean a population center -- Columbus, Macon, Savannah − would have the electoral weight to make or break many projects for the whole district. How would Muscogee County, with one sales tax vote for public safety and another down the road for schools, react to a transportation tax campaign for southwest Georgia if such a system were in place now?
Still, the concept, whatever questions and doubts arise from it, shows some creative thinking about a problem Georgia is long overdue to address. Smith and Mullis are indeed on the right track. The sooner they and other concerned Georgians determine where the state’s other tracks – and highways and bridges and bus routes -- need to go and how we’re going to pay for them, the better.
-- Columbus Ledger-Enquirer