House Transportation Bill: We can do much better

By Maria Saporta

The transportation plan unveiled last week by leaders in the Georgia House of Representatives initially showed promise, but when details emerged, sadly, it totally missed the mark.

I will let others try to explain to state legislators how they underestimate the intelligence of the public. If we can all agree we need to invest more in our transportation infrastructure, the public probably understands that it will cost taxpayers more money to do so.

Just because some lawmakers have painted themselves into a “no new taxes” pledge corner, it does not mean Georgians can’t understand that we need to invest in our future so we can  create the quality of life we need to have to be a competitive state in the 21st Century.

But let’s set that aside and let others debate whether the state will be able to raise $1 billion in new revenue without raising taxes (unless it’s on the backs of the meager budgets of city, county and school governments).

Let’s just take the extremely confusing mixture of motor fuel taxes – the 4 percent sales tax on motor fuel that the House proposes changing to a motor fuel excise tax; there’s the current motor fuel excise tax and then there are local sales taxes on motor fuels that are collected when counties and school boards pass local option sales tax.

According to the Georgia Supreme Court’s interpretation of the State Constitution, the revenue from the motor fuel excise tax must be used solely on roads and bridges.

But there is flexibility in how the state can use the revenue from the sales tax charged on motor fuels.

So instead of changing the sales tax to an excise tax, the state should be doing the reverse. The General Assembly should convert most or all of the motor fuel taxes currently collected to a sales tax on motor fuels and mandate that the revenue be spent on transportation.

bus and bicycles

How buses and bicycles can work on an intermodal transportation system (Credit: Smart Growth America)

The Georgia Department of Transportation could receive all of that revenue, or a portion could go to the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and the State Road and Tollway Authority could get a share of those dollars for their operations.

Perhaps an agreement could be reached with local governments that they could keep their sales tax revenue that they currently collect, but mandate that it be spent on transportation.

The beauty of this alternative proposal is that the revenue could be spent on ALL modes of transportation – roads, bridges, airports, trains, buses, public transit, bicycles, sidewalks and multi-purpose trails. The state and local governments would have the flexibility to decide how to spend their dollars based on the current need.

No one can argue about giving our governments the flexibility to decide on which transportation modes are best suited for each part of the state at any particular time.

Next, the idea of having a one-time $100 million bond issue for transit is misguided. We have found that like all modes of transportation, transit needs both capital and operating funds. It would be unfortunate if the state were to allow GRTA to buy new buses, but then not provide any money to actually operate them.

Again, ongoing funding for all modes of transportation is what we should be shooting for. We need a balanced transportation system. And to meet that goal, we need a balanced transportation budget.

Georgia needs the flexibility to meet the  growing demand for bicycle and pedestrian  trails alongside roadways (Credit: Smart Growth America)

Georgia needs the flexibility to meet the growing demand for bicycle and pedestrian trails alongside roadways (Credit: Smart Growth America)

Lastly, placing a $200 to $300 annual surcharge on electric vehicles also is self-defeating.

As a state, we should want people to be driving electric cars because they are not polluting our air and contributing to greenhouse gases. They also are helping us conserve gasoline – which also is a plus for our state. Why then would we be punishing people for buying electric cars?

I’ve always said that my favorite tax is the motor fuel tax. The more fuel a vehicle consumes, the more the owner of that vehicle should pay. And the farther distances a person drives, the more that person should pay.

That means – from my vantage point – the motor fuel tax encourages positive outcomes. If the cost of gas gets too high, people will buy more energy efficient cars, and people will cut down on their driving by living closer to where they work or minimize their amount of travel in a single-occupancy vehicle by taking transit, car-pooling, walking, cycling or teleworking.

It does make sense to have other pots of money to pay for our transportation needs so that we are not totally dependent on the sales tax on motor fuels.

But let us make sure that as we shift our tax dollars around that we are forward-thinking and strategic. Give us the flexibility to pay for all our transportation needs of today and of our future.

The current House Transportation bill falls far short of on all counts.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

7 replies
  1. CarMan says:

    “Lastly, placing a $200 to $300 annual sir-charge on electric vehicles also is self-defeating.
    As a state, we should want people to be driving electric cars because
    they are not polluting our air and contributing to greenhouse gases.
    They also are helping us conserve gasoline – which also is a plus for
    our state. Why then would we be punishing people for buying electric
    cars”Because gas taxes are for maintaining the same roads that these vehicles use as well. If they aren’t paying their share for road maintenance through gas taxes, they need to pony up in a different manner and pay for the roads just like all of the rest of us vehicle owners do.  (And for the record, it is surcharge, not sir-charge.)Report

    Reply
  2. poulie says:

    I find it so sad that the solution for every problem is more
    taxes and fees.Like any business or household,never are our governments (local
    and federal) asked to watch their spending, asked to do more with less or asked
    to look at their budgets and trim the fat that exist. If we stop giving in to
    the crying of you government loving folks who constantly complain how the
    government needs more tax money for roads, schools, etc. the government will
    make due. Case in point was the failed TSPLOST. Many of the proposed infrastructure projects to be paid for by the tax increase are still being built!Example I-285 /GA 400.The message must remain that we are tired of government’s waste of our money!Report

    Reply
  3. Equitable says:

    @ Carman Agree that EV should pay a relatively small $200-$300 annual tax to be on the road. But let’s keep the one-time tax break for EV buyers. EVs, including the “upstream” production of electricity, reduce greenhouse gases by 60% compared to a regular unleaded gas vehicle. 
    @Poulie – so very sick of hearing the whining about government can’t do anything and taxes are too high. And what would you do with the small amount of money you’d be saving? Buy another Chinese-built 60″ TV to watch professional football? Maybe you could save up for 10 years and buy another Hummer? It’s time we grew out of this adolescent libertarian fantasy and started acting like the hard-working adults we truly are. Government allows us to pool our resources and build/repair things in the common interest. Yes, it needs to be watched, just like corporations, or non-profits to be sure it’s doing the right thing, but that doesn’t mean we do nothing new. Your anti-government stance is reducing the US to 3rd world status where we’re dominated by a handful of rich people while the rest of us are poor with no prospects.Report

    Reply

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