Regional transportation funding bill may fail again

By Dave Williams and Maria Saporta
Friday, March 19, 2010

Metro Atlanta’s hopes for a way to fund gridlock-easing transportation improvements may be about to die in the General Assembly for a third straight year.

With the 2010 legislative session approaching a make-or-break deadline, a transportation funding bill proposed by Gov. Sonny Perdue could fall victim to the same political tensions that blew up the last two years of work.

“This year, because the governor actually introduced legislation himself … we were very optimistic that we would finally get a comprehensive transportation package approved,” said Bill Linginfelter, chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber and area president for Regions Bank.

“[But] if we bogged down for the third straight year, what it proves is that it’s not only a complex issue that we have to deal with, it’s also a highly political one.”

Perdue’s bill tries to find middle ground between meeting Georgia’s transportation needs statewide, an approach the House of Representatives favored last year, and a regional strategy that acknowledges the issue is more critical in metro Atlanta than rural Georgia.

Cheered on by Atlanta business leaders, the Senate took that regional emphasis last year with legislation that would have let the metro counties seek a separate regional vote on a penny sales tax increase to fund highway and transit improvements.

The governor’s bill would allow Georgians to vote by region on transportation funding. However, in a nod to the statewide strategy, voters in Georgia’s 12 planning regions would go to the polls simultaneously in 2012 and decide whether to support the tax.

The tax would be imposed only in regions that pass the referendum. Thus, projects funded with the additional revenue would be built only in those areas.

The complexities surrounding how those regional ballots would be developed and how those simultaneous elections would work has become the key obstacle to the bill’s passage.

“Trying to draw language is becoming a very difficult process,” said Terry Lawler, executive director of the Regional Business Coalition, an alliance of organizations that represents 16,000 Atlanta-area businesses.

The bill calls for voters in each region to be given a list of projects to be funded by the tax, an issue that has created a split between Perdue and House Republicans.

Project lists would be assembled by local elected officials in consultation with the planning director of the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Under a new House version of the legislation, if those officials cannot agree on projects to put on the ballot, a vote could not be held in that region for two years.

“If local officials are going to impose the tax, they ought to approve the projects,” said Chick Krautler, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission.

But Perdue opposes the “regional opt-out” and is threatening to veto any bill that includes such a provision.

His version of the bill would give the DOT planning director the power to create project lists for regions that can’t come up with one on their own.

Perdue is determined that the legislation lead to a statewide transportation plan, not a series of localized plans, Rep. Jim Cole, the governor’s floor leader in the House, told a House subcommittee on March 4.

“Transportation is all of Georgia’s problem, not just Atlanta’s problem,” said Cole, R-Forsyth.

But Atlanta-area lawmakers aren’t buying that argument.

“Why do we have to have a statewide vote?” said Rep. Pat Gardner, D-Atlanta. “The Atlanta region is ready to go now.”

Indeed, metro Atlanta business leaders are hoping legislative leaders fall back on a variation of the Senate’s regional approach from last year if the logjam between Perdue and the House can’t be broken.

A House-Senate conference committee working on the final day of the 2009 session came close to agreement on a compromise that would have set up a transportation sales tax referendum in the metro region’s 10 ARC counties. Local officials in the rest of Georgia, under the proposal, would have been allowed to band together in whatever groups of counties they saw fit and hold their own regional votes.

“We feel like a regional [transportation tax vote], given all the research we’ve done nationally, is still the best option,” Linginfelter said.

An impediment to the regional approach is that last year’s legislation was in the form of a constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority vote in the House and Senate. Majority Republicans in the two chambers would have to rely on Democrats to pass the measure.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, said he would prefer trying to work out a compromise with Perdue on the governor’s bill.

But time is growing short. Bills that fail to pass either legislative chamber by the annual “crossover day,” which falls on March 25 this year, are considered dead.

They can be resurrected in the final days of the session by being attached to related legislation, but that’s a dicey process with a high failure rate.

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.

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