Georgia coalition urges lawmakers to “cross the finish line” on transit funding


As the Georgia General Assembly entered the final week of the 2009 session on Monday, a broad coalition of business leaders, government leaders, transit advocates, road builders, and environmentalists called on lawmakers to reach a compromise on transportation funding.

“We’re on the 1 yard line,” Doug Hertz, co-chair of the Get Georgia Moving Coalition, said. “We’ve got to cross the finish line.”

“Georgians want action now,” Bill Linginfelter, co-chair of the Coalition, said. “We want to encourage these leaders to come through and get something done.”

State lawmakers have several key transit bills before them: HB 277 would impose a statewide, one cent sales tax to fund transportation projects; SB 39 would allow special transportation districts within the state to band together to levy a one cent sales tax for transportation projects; SB 200 would create a transit “super agency,” essentially merging Georgia’s numerous transit agencies and give the governor greater power over transportation decisions.

(Read more about HB 277.)

The House and Senate are having trouble coming together on the statewide vs. regional approach and Gov. Sonny Perdue has spent much of the session insisting a governance overhaul has to happen before he would sign off on new funding methods. 

Reports surfaced last week that Perdue and Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson (R-Hiram) are hammering out a compromise that would give the governor his new transportation authority but also give new authority over $2 billion in transportation spending to the Assembly. From the AJC’s “Political Insider” Jim Galloway:

Up to $400 million of that cash, or 20 percent, could be earmarked for special transportation projects selected by lawmakers. That amounts to $1.7 million for each of the state Capitol’s 236 lawmakers.

The new proposal, which was approved by the House Transportation Committee [last week], could also encourage a House-Senate compromise over a sales tax to finance more road construction in Georgia.

But with only a week before the session’s end, the Senate would have to agree to what one lawmaker described as a near-revolution in the way road dollars are spent.

“This General Assembly will appropriate the budget of the Department of Transportation in a way that it never has before. But in a way that’s just like every agency in state government,” state Rep. David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), official sponsor of the bill, told his colleagues. “The people of Georgia are much more in charge, through you.”

Galloway went on to describe the proposal:

Under the new proposal, the Legislature and the governor would split two responsibilities now controlled by the DOT board. Cash generated by taxes on motor fuel, along with federal money, are now funneled through the DOT board, which is also in charge of picking which projects receive funding. The bill also would reduce the DOT board’s authority over the DOT staff, beyond the appointment of a commissioner.

As approved Friday [March 27], a “director of planning” appointed by the governor would be inserted into the DOT — but would not answer either to the DOT commissioner or its board.

The director of planning would assemble the DOT’s budget and lists of road and rail projects, and hand them to the governor for approval. The governor then would submit the spending to the Legislature, to be handled in the same manner as the rest of the state’s $18.9 billion budget.

No less than 10 percent, and no more than 20 percent, of transportation funding would be placed in the hands of lawmakers. Such money would replace grant programs that now guarantee road construction in rural Georgia.

During the committee hearing and afterwards, Ralston said that portion of legislative spending would be immune from the governor’s line-item veto. The lawmaker later said he misspoke. The governor could still remove projects by line item veto, but could not redirect the cash to other projects of his own choice.

DOT board member Dana Lemon, who sat through the committee meeting, said she thought the board could adapt to the funding shift. “I think we’re going to be able to work within the purview of the General Assembly,” Lemon said. 

The Get Georgia Moving Coalition did not express a preference Monday for either a statewide sales tax or a regional approach but noted funding, whatever the method, should take the lead now over changing transportation governance.

“Timing over funding is imperative now,” Hertz said. “If we pass something now, we can get it on the ballot in 2010. We’ve got time to work out the governance side. We don’t have time to work out the funding.”

[NOTE: Lee Biola, president of Citizens for Progressive Transit, an organization that is part of the Get Georgia Moving Coalition, circulated a press release Monday that says “transit advocates” favor “a regional approach that would let voters decide as a region which projects to build. Voters would have several opportunities to vote on project lists if they do not like the first option presented.”

The release went on to say, “Transit advocates support an approach that would allow money raised in a region to stay in that region. Biola said any new law should give regions the flexibility to operate public transit systems long enough to qualify for federal matching dollars.”]

The lack of decisive action on transportation this late in the session has many, who still have the memory of last year’s failure on transportation, concerned.

The Coalition points to a study from McKinsey & Co. that found Georgia could lose 320,000 new jobs and nearly $600 billion in economic benefits unless it can generate $160 billion for new transportation investments over the next 20 years.

A March 23 poll from Insider Advantage found 66 percent of respondents consider passing legislation this year to provide for a means of increasing funding to create new and improve existing forms of transportation “very important” or “somewhat important.”

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