Support the transportation bill

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

The House transportation bill continues to be reworked as state legislators look to raise $1 billion to $1.5 billion in new annual revenue for road and bridge repairs. Backers also want to commit regular state funding for transit. Today, a Northside business organization writes in support of the legislation and against detractors who balk at increased taxes. In our second column, the Georgia Transit Association says the state continues to under-fund transit at its peril.

Exercise the excise tax

By Yvonne Williams

During the past few weeks, metro Atlanta interstates have been paralyzed for hours by a suspicious object, three horrific pedestrian fatalities on I-285, and a series of multi-vehicle pile ups. The fragility of our transportation network has been more visible than usual.

Georgia needs an additional $1 billion just to catch up and replace existing and deteriorating transportation infrastructure. Our state currently collects 4 cents per dollar in sales tax on gasoline. Only three cents of that four are committed to transportation. And only motor fuel excise taxes are obligated, under the Georgia Constitution, towards only transportation expenditures.

Though we all are enjoying lower gasoline prices bringing us nearly back to the 1990s, those lower prices also mean substantially lower sales tax revenues under our existing tax model for motor fuel.

The current price of a gallon of gas in Georgia is a combination of the price of the commodity, wholesaler costs, retail mark-up, state and local sales taxes, and state and federal excise taxes. Sales taxes, like the Fair Tax or any consumption tax, rise and fall with the purchase price and are tied to each dollar of sales. Excise taxes are fixed duties or fees charged on the sale of specific merchandise, such as gasoline, diesel fuel and cigarettes and alcohol (the latter two often referred to as “sin taxes”).

Thanks to bold leadership from Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston, after months of study and public hearings conducted by the Critical Transportation and Infrastructure Task Force, House leadership stepped up with a plan to replace our currently unsustainable motor fuel tax package with a hike in Georgia’s excise tax. Existing local sales taxes will remain in place, to sunset as SPLOSTs reach their respective termination dates. And the MARTA penny in DeKalb, Fulton and now Clayton counties will remain untouched.

The House plan will raise Georgia’s excise tax on fuel closer to the level of our neighbors in Florida and North Carolina, while allowing counties to add up to an additional 6 cents a gallon in excise fees for local road funding, to be shared with cities based on a population formula. The plan on the table is a balance of options to achieve revenue enhancements with trackable measures.

The ability to enhance grant programs for private-sector investment, where a competitive match is offered, should also be expanded with an emphasis on partnerships that stress transit connectivity — as in the case of partnerships with GRTA and MARTA. At the top end of the Perimeter, the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts have a track record and plan for new opportunities to partner resources with these agencies.

There are no easy solutions, and no one likes to discuss taxation options. However, preparing a menu of revenue enhancement options allows us to balance an agenda. The financial pressures to raise an additional billion dollars for transportation will be shared by local, state and private partnerships.

Thankfully, Georgia’s economy has finally started to thaw, with more than 324,000 new jobs created during Deal’s first term. Thriving areas, such as metro Atlanta’s Central Perimeter sub-market, and the new job growth and investments already made there will help fuel our region’s economic engine. Many challenges and ills associated with the recession begin to vanish if we can return to the days of 4 percent annual economic growth.

Until then, if we want to improve traffic flow and congestion, a greater share of that funding burden will fall back on us. Saying “no” may seem the simplest and easiest way to go, but as Atlanta is built on being the transportation, business and logistics hub for the Southeast, not continuing to invest in those strong suits could chill our emerging economic recovery.

Our Perimeter CIDs became Georgia’s preferred address for Fortune 500 companies through planning, investment and innovation for more than a decade and a half, and we are planning for our next decade. We support efforts of our state leaders to move us forward. We understand this requires the Legislature to commit to new revenue sources, as well as us putting some skin in the game. We’re with you.

Yvonne Williams is CEO and president of the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts.

Reliable transit funding a must

By Robert Hiett

Georgia is the eighth-largest state in the country, and it continues to attract new residents and business opportunities partly because of the strength of its transportation network. However, history has shown past performance is no guarantee of future success. Our state stands at a crossroads in 2015, choosing between staying on a path to prosperity, or taking another path that will send us on a downward economic trajectory.

Demographic and economic trends impact our state’s transportation network in dramatic ways.

On the demographic side, many millennials — people ages 18 to 34 — do not subscribe to the preferences of previous generations that valued owning and driving a car. Millennials seek to live and work in places with mobility options. These options may include public transit, vanpooling, car sharing, walking or bicycling to where they can work, live, and relax.

If a community’s only message to millennials is that they have to go everywhere in a car, it is likely to struggle to attract them in the numbers needed to replace Baby Boomers retiring from the workforce.

A dramatic rise in our senior citizen population also impacts transportation choices. Many seniors want to retire in their communities — to “age in place.” They eventually will need transportation assistance to remain in their homes. Communities with limited mobility options are not going to be labeled “senior friendly.”

Georgia currently scores only 33 out of 100 on the AARP livability index for transportation, which helps seniors identify states and cities with high walkability and access to multiple mobility options.

In addition to demographic trends, global economic forces are shaping our transportation future. More often, businesses seek locations with mobility choices for their employees, many of them millennials.

As recent decisions by State Farm, Mercedes-Benz and NCR have demonstrated in the Atlanta area, employers are locating closer to transit-oriented developments, such as near MARTA stations. Even in rural or suburban Georgia, an employer may want to know if its workers have access to local transit.

There is some form of public transit in more than 120 of Georgia’s 159 counties, but the transit network in place in 2015 will need additional resources to meet our growing needs. As of 2012, Georgia invested only 29 cents per person in its statewide transit network, down from 63 cents per person in 2008. The American Society of Civil Engineers in 2014 continued to give Georgia a “D-” for transit, primarily because Georgia has no reliable source of transit funding.

While we lag behind, our competitor states are developing multi-modal transportation networks, with a specific emphasis on transit. Those states’ partnerships — involving local, state and federal stakeholders — contrast starkly with Georgia, where transit is funded up to 95 percent by local governments and the federal government, with little state investment.

The Georgia Transit Association is a strong supporter of state investment in transit. It applauds the state House of Representatives for its leadership on this issue with the recent introduction of legislation to address the transportation funding challenges. There seems to be growing recognition transit is critical to the future success of Georgia.

While we celebrate changing political attitudes, we must stress the importance of creating a sustainable source of revenue to maintain and operate our state’s 128 transit systems. Although a one-time bond appropriation is certainly helpful, our future would be better served by making the state a permanent stakeholder in transit.

For Georgia to remain globally competitive, attract the best talent and provide our senior citizens with mobility options, we must act today to ensure we have a robust transportation network, including public transit, well into the future.

Robert Hiett is president of the Georgia Transit Association.


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