Transportation trouble

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Ranking near the bottom of per capita spending on transportation and overly dependent on federal handouts, Georgia is desperate to raise new revenue to fix its roads and bridges. Today, we hear about this crucial issue from a citizen member of the General Assembly’s Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding. In our second column, a former U.S. Transportation Department secretary writes that Congress needs to stop kicking the can down the road and take the lead to help states.

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Find a fix, or Georgia loses

By Edward Lindsey

Transportation has been at the heart of Atlanta’s progress since its creation. In the 19th century, that meant railroads. In the 20th century, it meant Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The question before us now is whether our present transportation woes will sow the seeds to our decline in the 21st century because urban areas — even historically great ones like Metro Atlanta — are perpetually in a period of growth and greater prosperity, or steady decline. There is no standing still.

Metro Atlanta drivers have one of the worst commutes in the nation. This translates into more time in our cars and less time for work, home and play. It also wastes — on average, in fuel, for each of us — over $900 per year sitting in traffic. In addition, Atlanta is ranked 91st out of 100 among major metro regions for access to transit. Major business prospects rank our transportation difficulties as one of their major concerns about relocating here, and our inability to address this problem will only further aggravate their concerns.

This month, the Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Funding Infrastructure for Georgia began its work. I am pleased to be a citizen member of this committee. The following are sobering transportation facts we confront in our search for solutions:

• The Georgia Department of Transportation’s revenue sources for Fiscal Year 2015 were approximately $1 billion from our state motor fuel tax and $1.2 billion from the Federal Highway Trust Fund.

• Georgia ranks 49th in the nation in per capita spending on transportation.

• Georgia presently receives back from the federal government $1.14 for every dollar we pay into Federal Highway Trust Fund.

• Fuel taxes paid in Georgia consist of 18.4 cents per gallon in federal taxes and 7.5 cents per gallon in state taxes.

• In addition, consumers pay a 4 percent sales tax on gasoline. Three cents of that tax goes directly to transportation, while the fourth penny goes into the state general fund to be spent on other things. This one-penny diversion equals $180 million per year, on average.

• A Georgia driver with a vehicle that averages 24 miles per gallon and travels 12,000 miles per year will pay approximately $85 in state taxes.

• Our reliance on fuel taxes as a principle means of paying for transportation improvements will be increasingly tenuous in coming years, as cars become more fuel-efficient and the number of electric cars increases.

• Likewise, given the gridlock in Washington and the rising federal deficit, our reliance on federal funds for transportation is also precarious.

• Georgia’s Statewide Transportation Plan for 2005-2035 has an estimated cost of $160 billion. Total expected available transportation dollars based on present revenue resources is estimated at $86 billion over this period, leaving a funding gap of $74 billion.

The discussion, moreover, must also go beyond simply considering how to find more transportation revenue, or any plan offered will face the same fate that befell T-SPLOST in 2012.

While the list of reasons given by voters for T-SPLOST’s rejection was a long one, at its heart was a simple failure to convince people the plan would deliver on the promises being made. Most voters saw the project listweighed down with too many local political pet projects and too little real regional gridlock relief. Any “Plan B” emerging from this study committee, therefore, must also ensure money is spent wisely.

In short, up or down? We either attack our transportation infrastructure problems head on, or sit back and watch our past successes slip away into the history books. The choice is ours. Let the work begin.

Former state Rep. Edward Lindsey is a citizen member of Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Funding Infrastructure for Georgia.

Port expansion shows state is committed

By Ray LaHood

Imagine if you had to live today on the same salary you made in 1993. The cost of everything has gone up, but your paycheck can’t keep up. If you went to see one of the most popular movies in 1993 — “Schindler’s List” — your ticket cost $4. Today, a movie costs three times as much. Back then, you bought a gallon of milk for $2.85, but today it costs $3.55. And gasoline averaged $1.11 a gallon in 1993, while today it is $3.50.

It would be impossible to maintain your lifestyle if your salary hadn’t moved an inch in more than 20 years. You and the nation’s gas tax would now share the same pain. The 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax hasn’t changed a penny since 1993. In inflation-adjusted terms, the gas tax has lost a third of its purchasing power and is worth only 11.5 cents today.

This is not just a lesson about inflation. This is important because the federal gas tax is the only revenue source for the Highway Trust Fund, which maintains our nation’s roads and bridges. Over the past 21 years, cars have become much more fuel-efficient, and hybrids and electric vehicles that use little or no gas are on the rise. Between more fuel-efficient cars and a gas tax that is limping along, the Highway Trust Fund is running on empty.

An empty trust fund would have direct consequences in every state including Georgia, where federal funding accounts for 76 percent of the state’s highway capital program. Georgia has at risk $1.2 billion in federal highway funding, 20,000 jobs and 358 projects, such as the 20-mile highway widening project in Clinch and Ware counties and the managed lanes project on I-85 in Gwinnett County.

Fortunately, Congress took action late last month to patch the trust fund, which had been projected to run dry in August. But instead of increasing revenue for the long term, Congress punted and only provided a temporary reprieve for another 10 months.

Instead of waiting until we reach another crisis point in May, Congress has an opportunity to take decisive action and provide a long-term and sustainable solution when it returns to Washington for a lame duck session after the November elections.

Congress could stave off this crisis by increasing revenue to the trust fund through a modest 10-cent increase in the gasoline tax and indexing it to inflation. Such an increase would generate an additional $15 billion annually to allow the trust fund to continue to fix and modernize our roads and bridges.

As a former elected official, I fully understand the difficult politics of raising revenue. But while policymakers in Congress sit on their hands and the highway trust fund runs on fumes, governors and local officials have been making tough decisions and raising money to address their own local transportation challenges.

Last year, six governors approved legislation that raised either the state gasoline tax or sales tax — in states led by Democrats and Republicans. The public understands the importance of smart infrastructure spending and approved 91 percent of the ballot initiatives that sought to raise funds in last November’s elections. This year, an additional six states have introduced bills or put forth proposals to raise their gas tax or index it to inflation.

My colleagues in state governments are making tough decisions, and that includes policymakers in Georgia. I recently spent a day in Atlanta, where I met with the Legislative Study Committee charged with examining the state’s transportation challenges and making recommendations to the General Assembly. I reminded committee members that for Georgia to attract business and economic development and provide jobs, it must have a first-rate infrastructure, and that smart and strategic investments are critical to achieving these goals.

Georgia has already made great strides by investing resources into modernizing the Port of Savannah. This was made possible in large part because a Republican governor and Democratic mayor joined forces and got behind a plan.

Congress could learn a valuable lesson from Georgia’s example. The years of kicking the can down the pothole-filled road must end. Congress needs to make a real and sustainable long-term fix for funding America’s transportation system. The economic prosperity of Georgia and our nation depends upon it.

Ray LaHood is former secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation and co-chairman of Building America’s Future.

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