Georgia Senate OKs transportation funding plan

ATLANTA — The Georgia Senate on Tuesday approved a transportation funding plan that would allow residents to boost their sales tax by a penny to pay for road, transit and light rail projects.

The Senate easily OK'd a pair of bills that would permit regions to band together and increase the tax to tackle the state's notorious traffic congestion. One measure passed 52-3 and the other 53-2.

Voters will get two opportunities to have their say.

Georgians must approve the plan at the ballot box in 2010 as a constitutional amendment. Once local officials opt in and craft a list of projects, voters in the affected areas would then vote again on whether to tax themselves an additional penny to fund transportation improvements for that region.

Under the bill, one of the regions would automatically be made up of 10 counties in metro Atlanta, which has some of the worst commute times in the nation. Other counties could move ahead with tax increases on their own, join together with neighboring counties, or opt not to take part.

Tuesday's vote came after heavy lobbying from the state's business leaders, who say metro-Atlanta's traffic woes are hindering their ability to attract and keep companies. Atlanta's commute ranks as the second worst in the nation. And the state ranks second from the bottom when it comes to per capita spending on transportation, state Department of Transportation officials said.

The Senate plan is on a collision course with one in the state House, which is pushing a plan that would boost the sales tax statewide by 1 cent. House Speaker Glenn Richardson has argued that "transportation is not an Atlanta problem, it's a Georgia problem." The House unveiled its plan Monday, along with a list of proposed projects around the state the new tax would fund.

But Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who presides over the state Senate, said the regional plan is preferable because voters approving a tax increase would know "the money's going to stay there."

Cagle said it allows "true local input and influence of transportation projects."

Georgia currently has a 4 cent sales tax. Counties assess additional taxes on top of that which vary by location.

The bill's sponsor, state Sen. Jeff Mullis, said Tuesday that transportation is a quality-of-life issue for Georgians trapped in traffic as they try to get their children's ball games and ballet recitals.

"I've been surprised that our Capitol isn't surrounded by people with pitchforks and sickles, but they can't get here because they are stuck in traffic," the Republican from Chickamauga said.

He stressed that voters would have the final say.

"This is a voter-led transportation funding enhancement that only your voters will decide," Mullis said.

State Sen. Kasim Reed, a Democrat running for mayor of Atlanta said that without a substantial investment in transportation, Georgia's largest city risks losing its distinction as "the jewel of the South."

Already the city is losing jobs to Charlotte, N.C. and Orlando, Fla., he said.

"This bill is about job creation. It's about Atlanta's dominance and our state's dominance as a place where business cab grow and thrive," Reed said.

The plan the state Senate approved Tuesday is similar to one that fell just one vote short of passing in the final minutes of last year's legislative session.

Road projects in Georgia have largely been funded by gas tax collections. But those numbers have been weak since gas prices spiked to record highs last year.