Transportation tax: Gov. Deal rejects bid for more money as Eldrin Bell alleges conflict of interest by GRTA

By David Pendered

Faced with a list of road and transit projects they just don’t want to cut any deeper, local elected officials voted Thursday to ask the state Legislature for access to possibly more sales tax dollars.

But their hopes already have been dashed. Asked for comment on the pending request, a spokeswoman for the governor said late Thursday that the Legislature will not consider it during the special session that begins Aug. 15.

Clayton County Chairman Eldrin Bell did his part to raise the heat of debate by suggesting that the proposed – and moribund – commuter rail line from Atlanta to Griffin is the victim of a state agency’s effort to protect its bus service in the area.

Eldrin Bell, chairman, Clayton County Board of Commissioners. Credit: Clayton County

Eldrin Bell, chairman, Clayton County Board of Commissioners. Credit: Clayton County

“GRTA has a conflict of interest,” Bell said of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, which runs a bus system and also is the agency charged by law with determining the cost and feasibility of all proposed transit projects.

“The last time I looked, the South side was GRTA’s most successful area of service,” Bell said. “I wouldn’t dare accuse GRTA of cooking the numbers, but what did they take into consideration when they determined their estimates of commuter rail?”

GRTA’s review has showed the 42-mile segment would cost $469.6 million to build. Estimates by other entities place the cost at $250 million to $300 million, said Gordon Kenna, CEO of Georgians for Passenger Rail. A GRTA policy advisor disputed Bell’s contention.

“The cost assessment figures meet the criteria established by the roundtable and incorporate extensive feedback to accurately reflect the project scope provided by local governments,” said GRTA’s Matt Markam.  “There is enough travel demand in metro Atlanta for all commute options, and we look forward to the implementation of the transit projects chosen by the roundtable to improve the region’s transportation infrastructure.”

Bell’s comments illustrate the enormous frustration of developing a wish list of roads and transit that is within the budget of $6.1 billion.

The Executive Committee of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable simply can’t agree on a project list. Bell serves on the roundtable, but not the Executive Committee.

As members of the Executive Committee voted 5-0 to look to the Capitol for help Thursday, they also voted 5-0 for a project list that’s about $460 million above their budget of $6.1 billion. They will return Monday – their final day to approve a tentative list  – and they plan to have the full roundtable consider their unanimous vote seeking a change in the duration of the proposed sales tax.

The shortage of anticipated sales tax revenues, compared to the $29 billion in initial requests for projects involving roads, transit, and biking and walking, is one reason the Executive Committee wanted to ask the Legislature for permission to raise more money than possibly could be raised under current law.

By law, the proposed 1 percent sales tax for transportation must terminate either at the end of a decade, or when all specified projects are fully funded.

The Executive Committee voted to ask the Legislature to change the law to allow the sales tax to be collected for 10 years – regardless of whether projects have been funded. Cherokee County Chairman Buzz Ahrens proposed the idea and said that any money collected after a first list of projects is completed could be spent on a second-tier list of projects.

The hope is that the sales tax will bring in enough revenues in less than a decade to cover all expenditures. If that happens, and the duration of the tax is extended, the additional revenues could pay for projects in addition to the initial list.

The proposal is to be considered Monday by the entire membership of the Regional Roundtable.

However, Gov. Nathan Deal’s office determined that the Legislature will not consider the request. Under the Georgia Constitution, only the governor sets the agenda of a special session, the type that begins Aug. 15, and Deal has already issued the call for lawmakers to convene.

Stephanie Mayfield, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in an email that the Legislature will consider only a request to change the date of the sales tax referendum – from the primary election in 2012 to the general election, in November 2012.

The governor’s call for the special session allows the Legislature to consider one provision of the law that enables the transportation sales tax, the date of the referendum, which is in the state law at: 48-8-244(a). The provision the Executive Committee wants addressed concerns the duration of the 1 percent sales tax for transportation, located at: 48-8-245(b)(2).

 

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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