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Maggie Lee

This might be the year Georgia starts funding transit annually

The Gold Dome of the state Capitol reflected in a bus window. Credit: Kelly Jordan The Gold Dome of the state Capitol reflected in a bus window. Credit: Kelly Jordan

This might be the year Georgia joins the list of states that annually help fund their big-city transit — albeit in a very very small way — if the Georgia Legislature decides to designate an existing ride-share fee to buses and subway lines.

It’s a step that’s being called “historic.”

Transit advocates in Georgia look longingly at states like New York, where year after year the state sends money to help pay for city subways and buses. Ticket sales alone don’t fund transit anywhere in the U.S. — the public always helps pay.

In Georgia, local sales taxes and federal funds mainly pay for transit in metro Atlanta, Gwinnett, Cobb, Savannah and other communities. Of course the big one is MARTA, with an annual budget of about $1.2 billion. The state does bankroll Xpress commuter buses at about $12 million to $13 million per year.  And that’s long been about it from the state.

But consistent traffic and scant transit aren’t attractive in the capital region of the state that’s supposed to be No. 1 for doing business. So the folks in the gold-domed building downtown are starting pay some more attention.

There was creation of The ATL transit agency to coordinate metro planning. And some bond funds.

And now the state might be ready to set aside an existing $0.50 cent fee per ride on Uber, Lift and similar services every year to pay for transit.

The sum isn’t huge — an official nonpartisan state estimate before the pandemic suggested it could eventually be as much as $16.6 million per year.

But still, a regular income for transit would be historic, said Georgia’s longest-serving lawmaker.

Transit has been a neglected part of the state’s infrastructure, said state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus last month, speaking when House Bill 511 came through the House. Yet even during the pandemic, transit kept working throughout the state.

Smyre called the dedicated transit funding in House Bill 511 “a historical move in the right direction.”

For a few years now, the idea at the state Capitol in Atlanta has long been that an Uber/Lyft fee could help pay for transit. So the fee has been set up.

And the first appropriation of it might be underway already, with the Georgia House proposing $6 million to help renovate Bankhead Station, right beside where Microsoft is moving in.

Technically House Bill 511 would pretty much require the Legislature to spend that money on transit for at least 10 years, unless there’s some financial catastrophe or some other financial triggers.

Bill supporters say it’s necessary to formally “dedicate” the fee because of the Legislature’s history of failing to spend fee money on the things it’s collected for.

A file photo from March 2017 shows tires heaped outside the Georgia state Capitol in protest of diversion of tire cleanup money. Credit: Kelly Jordan

A file photo from March 2017 shows tires heaped outside the Georgia state Capitol in protest of diversion of tire cleanup money. Credit: Kelly Jordan

The poster child example is the $1 “tire disposal” fee when you legally get rid of a tire. The state is supposed to spend that money on cleaning up illegal tire dumps, but Georgia has years of history of spending that money elsewhere.

It’s as strange as it sounds: a fee is set up for a specific thing, and the legislative intent to spend that fee on a certain thing is written down for everyone to see. But subsequent lawmakers haven’t followed directions, and legally they don’t have to.

That’s why bill sponsor state Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, and others call HB 511 the “truth in fees bill.”

It builds on a constitutional amendment that Georgia voters approved last year which makes fee dedication possible, within limits.

“There have been times where these dedicated fees have been basically siphoned into the general fund and used not for what they were originally intended,” he told a state Senate committee Monday.

His bill would dedicate nine separate fees. Transit is one of them, tire cleanup is another.

The total maximum money that could be set aside is 1% of the main portion of the state budget — or about $230 million these days.

The lion’s share of that is hotel/motel fees that before the pandemic were getting toward $200 million per year. Under this bill, that money would be formally dedicated to transportation — though up to 10% of that could also be spent on transit.

The Senate Finance Committee approved House Bill 511. It’s up to the Senate Rules Committee to decide on scheduling a full floor vote, the next step on the way to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk.

Correction: A previous version of this story named the wrong Senate committee name.  The Senate Finance Committee passed the bill.

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Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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