May 24, 2010 By Daniel C. Vock
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (pictured) says the deal will kick off "the biggest capital investment in the last 50 years in the state of Georgia." Article reprinted by permission of stateline.org
For a state whose capital city of Atlanta suffers from some of the nation's worst traffic congestion, Georgia has had a difficult time raising funds for highways and transit. Regional rivalries, a pervading anti-tax atmosphere and even personality conflicts among lawmakers all have conspired to keep any kind of ambitious transportation initiative tied up in gridlock.
This year, however, Georgia legislators finally struck a deal, one that Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has said will result in "the biggest capital investment in the last 50 years in the state of Georgia." The plan has a few more hurdles to clear, however. Gov. Sonny Perdue still has to sign the bill into law. If he does, it will be at least three more years before new tax dollars begin funding projects aimed at unclogging highways, building up rail and bus capacity or modernizing airports.
The package sent to Perdue is hardly straightforward. The law applies to the whole state, but it divides the state into a dozen regions -- including the Atlanta area -- that will decide on their own whether to opt in. Officials from each of those regions must come to agreement on which projects they want to fund. Then, it will be up to voters in those regions to decide, in 2012, whether they want to pay for those local projects with a penny hike in their sales tax.
A Regional Approach
The regional focus is a major component of the Georgia plan. That's a significant development in a state where transportation decisions and local-option sales taxes usually are decided by individual counties. For example, Atlanta's regional rail and bus authority, MARTA, covers only two of the 10 counties that make up the Atlanta region. The go-it-alone approach has led to a patchwork of transit options. Earlier this year, Clayton County, a majority-black suburban county south of Atlanta, stopped all bus service due to budget cuts.
Regional efforts to improve transportation are becoming more common, says David Goldberg, a spokesman for Transportation for America, a coalition that wants to overhaul the country's transportation system. Working regionally, rather than statewide, can be easier politically because it doesn't require people who live in rural areas to fund urban transit systems they never use. "It gradually has become clear," Goldberg says, "that it's very difficult to get people who don't see a direct stake in what's proposed to vote for (transportation funding) on a statewide basis."
One of the biggest backers of the Georgia bill was the Atlanta Regional Commission, a planning body that represents the capital region's 10 counties, as well as the city of Atlanta. Tom Weyandt, the group's director of comprehensive planning, says Atlanta-area leaders stuck together while pressing their case for transportation funding. At the same time, individual counties also developed their own transportation plans and aligned their goals with regional priorities. Weyandt says that record of cooperation suggests localities can work together to find a mix of projects that voters will approve.
But the regional focus still has many potential pitfalls. Matthew Hicks, a lobbyist for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, which backed the bill, says coming up with an agreed-upon list of projects could be difficult for some of the 12 designated regions. That may be especially true in regions that include predominantly rural counties, where the penny sales tax hike wouldn't raise a whole lot of money. Under the law, individual counties can't opt out of their region's planning process or the sales tax hike. The region as a whole must act together, whether it's to decide yes or