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Legislature: Transit funding to be protected despite issues with Georgia Constitution

By David Pendered

The author of the proposed $1 billion statewide transportation legislation said Thursday he is committed to ensure that the bill will fund transit, despite issues with the Georgia Constitution.

Ga. 400 south, approaching I-285

Georgia’s transportation needs are the same in rural and metro areas: Enabling reasonable mobility, according to House Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Roberts. File/Credit: David Pendered

“In the bill, we talk about dedicating money toward transit,” said House Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Roberts (R-Ocilla). “We realize that you can’t dedicate [funding to transit] without a constitutional amendment. We are looking at making a commitment within the state budget. Unfortunately, within the bill, I can’t put something in for the budget.

“It is time for the state of Georgia to step up and start putting money into transit,” Roberts said.

Roberts said he agreed with Neill Herring, a lobbyist with the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club, who had raised the constitutional issue in his comments to the House Transportation Committee meeting Thursday afternoon. The next meeting is to be next week, on a day to be determined.

Herring had pointed out that the Georgia Constitution does not authorize the use of state roadway funds to develop or maintain transit.

House Transportation Chairman Jay Roberts

House Transportation Chairman Jay Roberts

As a consequence, language in House Bill 170 that would fund transit has no legal basis. The guaranteed fix would involve asking voters to amend the state constitution to allow state roadway funds to be spent on transit, and having voters approve the proposal. Such a statewide vote could be scheduled during the 2016 presidential primary election.

“We would support a CA [constitutional amendment],” Herring said.

Of the 13 or so speakers who addressed the legislation, the only one to raise major questions with the purpose of HB 170 was Tom Gehl, government affairs director of the Georgia Municipal Association. GMA opposes the bill because its provisions would reduce the sum cities can collect from motor fuel taxes.

Gehl urged the committee to revisit the 2010 legislation that enabled the referenda in 2012 on a 1 percent transportation sales tax. Gehl outlined a series of minor revisions to state law that would enable elected officials in each region that didn’t approve the sales tax to take another crack at proposing transportation packages that voters might support.

No one on the committee asked Gehl a question, though he was thanked for his efforts to help improve the state’s transportation funding program.

In other transit-related discussion, Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) submitted an amendment to HB 170 that speaks to plans to expand transit service in Cobb County.

Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth)

Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth)

The amendment would require a public vote on any proposal to build a fixed guideway system of mass transit in any county outside the core service area of MARTA. MARTA’s core service area is defined as Atlanta, Clayton, DeKalb, and Fulton counties.

In practical application, the amendment addresses concerns of some Cobb residents that a bond referendum to fund a bus rapid transit line will morph over time into a heavy rail line. Cobb Chairman Tim Lee is leading the political push for a bond referendum to fund BRT on the ballot in November 2016.

“This [amendment] recognizes that when fixed guideway transit moves into a county, it’s a longtime affair,” Setzler said. “It’s a long-time commitment that extends beyond the terms of commissioners.”

Several committee members questioned the impact the resolution could have on transit and commuter rail issues in their districts. Roberts said Setzler’s amendment was fine with him.

“He has legitimate concerns,” Roberts said. “I understand the issue he’s faced with. I don’t object to his amendment.”

Setzler wrapped up by observing that his amendment was drafted with input from Association County Commissioners of Georgia. ACCG’s representative had previously spoken in favor of the current version of HB 170.

In a matter of interest only in Atlanta, state Rep. Pat Gardner (D-Atlanta) submitted an amendment to protect the revenues of the city’s 1 percent sales tax that helps pay for upgrades to the water and sewer system.

Roberts indicated he was willing to look into Gardner’s request. When similar issues have arisen in the past, Atlanta’s affairs have been addressed by creating provisions based on the city’s population.

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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