Billion-dollar road bill boiling down to a familiar pattern

By Tom Baxter

Doesn’t it seem like we’ve been around this beltway before?

Some time this week, a House-Senate conference committee will sit down with the pieces of this year’s big transportation funding bill and try to fit them into a compromise that will fly in both chambers — quite a feat, considering how narrowly the Senate passed its amended version of the bill last week.

It’s tempting to call this the Billion-a-Year transportation bill, because a lot of experts at the beginning of this process brought up a billion a year as the minimum the state needs to spend to maintain its roads and bridges, and because supporters of the bill started out with that goal in mind.

If it passes in some future form, this won’t be a billion-a-year bill. There won’t be any money for public transit in it, nor much expectation that it will be the big fix for the state’s transportation needs. But that’s not to say that the money redirected in the current version of the bill doesn’t tear a big old hole in the general budget.

This is the latest in a recurring cycle of what might better be called ball-of-wax transportation bills, which have repeatedly tested the ability of the state’s political and business establishment to come to grips with the problem, and repeatedly found it wanting.

Asphalt has always been a major concern under the Golden Dome, but the current cycle of dysfunctional transportation efforts can be traced back to 2008, after Gov. Sonny Perdue’s effort to outdo his Democratic predecessors, the $15.5 billion “Fast Forward” program, became mired in cost overruns and finger-pointing. Some of this money went to improvements aimed, not always accurately, at improving the Metro region’s steadily worsening traffic problems. Some of it went to building roads to places where they don’t have hospitals anymore.

The uproar over “Fast Forward” was the preamble for three successive years in which the effort to put a transportation-tied tax increase before the voters consumed most of the legislature’s emotional energy and rhetorical ability. When the T-SPLOST enabling legislation was finally passed, voters in nine of the twelve newly-created transportation districts turned it down.

The current effort, scrapping the referendum idea in favor of a reshuffling of the tax structure for financing roads, has sometimes been dubbed “Plan B,” in reference to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s claim four years ago that if the T-SPLOST effort failed, there would be no Plan B. And at this moment, for all its billion-dollar pretensions, there may not be.

This frustrating history bears repeating, because it begs the question of whether the big-fix approach to funding our transportation needs is really viable in the current political atmosphere. State Rep. John Carson’s bill which would allow for SPLOST referendums on tax increases of less than a penny represents a nod in this direction. Its prospects appear to be better this year than in Carson’s first effort last year, in part because half a loaf is looking better all the time.

Interestingly, while the Senate was trimming the ambitions of the current bill, it added an amendment which would create a Special Joint Committee on Georgia Revenue Structure, which would produce tax reform legislation that would be submitted for an up-or-down vote in next year’s legislative session.

This is the ball-of-wax idea, extended into the larger category of taxes in general. Like the transportation bill it’s in, it is an effort to reinvent an earlier, failed big-fix initiative, the Georgia Tax Reform Council. It shows the recurring attraction of the idea: a new ball of wax, within another that is already melting.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

3 replies
  1. JWK says:

    Nothing meaningful will ever happen in GA regarding transportation, education or healthcare and that is because the GOP have us convinced we all live in “Cocoon”. Not A cocoon but the movie Cocoon. You know the place where nobody pays taxes, nobody gets really sick and nobody needs to get too smart. The same place where we sprinkle tax incentives (fairy dust being generated in the metro Atlanta area) to get companies to move to our fine state but not have the most qualified work force to support them. Then they take more of that fairy dust from Atlanta and build 4 lane roads to nowhere like Lanier Islands Parkway in Hoschton.Report

  2. RobertGrunwald says:

    Well  Tom for  the first time i agree with you. I have  lived in the Atlanta metro area for the  20 years since moving hear in 1996. What seen is the same thing we get fired up on to  solve the transportation issue yet in the it all smoke mirrors.  Yet this are is  spending 2.4 billon dollars on two stadium and nothing on infursture  in metro  Atlanta area/ I know people will say 840 million dollars for the  Lexus lanes in on 75  well we see how well that works in  south bound on 85 into metro atlanta major fail.   I travel everyday to east point   for work which at 37.8 mile driver one way  from  Acworth  exit 277  it takes me 120 min go 22 miles  in the morniing . I  can not leave early because i put son  on bus for school. I work ti ll 19:00 every day  becauise if live at 18:00 still get home at 20:00.,

    My question to  leadership of  the state  how are you going to deal with 30,00 or more People  during  April to October  on 285 and 75  during rush hour  where  is the plan b now .  The Plan be has been on the book for last  15 years yet it never talked about  well here the link for it   has been book since 1997 it now  2015

    We have seen the Rodeo before  it does not end well. Enough  in EnoughReport


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