BRADENTON, Fla. - A sweeping overhaul of Georgia's transportation planning and financing system began making its way through the General Assembly this week.
The measure is backed by Gov. Sonny Perdue, who has warned that he will not approve either of the two plans also being considered by the General Assembly that would increase the state sales tax for transportation projects without major changes in the structure of the agencies that plan projects and spend the funds.
The 101-page bill, backed by Perdue and supported by the state's top lawmakers, would restructure the Georgia Department of Transportation, which is now overseen by the State Transportation Board and its members who represent the 13 congressional districts in the state.
The bill also would merge the DOT's main financing arm, the Georgia State Road and Tollway Authority, with the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, which focuses on transportation needs in the Atlanta area. The GSRTA has approximately $1.6 billion of outstanding federal highway grant anticipation and reimbursement revenue bonds.
From the merger would come a new entity called the State Transportation Authority, which would assume future financing responsibilities as well as the outstanding debt of the Road and Tollway Authority, according to Bert Brantley, the governor's spokesman.
Perdue, Lieut. Gov. Casey Cagle, and House Speaker Glenn Richardson have called the current transportation structure a "tangled web of bureaucracy that makes it virtually impossible to hold anyone accountable."
"Georgians deserve a transportation network that functions as a whole - not 13 gerrymandered parts," Perdue said last week when he unveiled the proposed restructuring plan. "We need to abandon the scattered approach that spreads resources too thin, and instead focus investment on projects that actually move the needle on congestion, job creation, and take full advantage of the investments we have made in our ports, rail lines, and airports."
The constitutionally created State Transportation Board meets today at 1 p.m. to review DOT staff recommendations on the use of $932 million Georgia expects to receive from the recently passed federal economic stimulus act. The board has tentatively scheduled a press conference at 2:30 p.m. today at which it will for the first time publicly discuss its position on the transportation reform bill.
The current transportation system evolved in the 1960s to address the needs of metropolitan Atlanta, where half of Georgia's population lives, and the rest of the state. The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, which was created in 1999, operates many of metropolitan Atlanta's commuter services, and was designed to evolve into an all-encompassing coordinating agency, said DOT spokesman David Spear. The GRTA has bonding authority but has not issued debt.
Not enough progress is being made to resolve the state's varied transportation problems with so many agencies, the governor, Cagle, and Richardson said in joint op-ed piece they released on Friday.
"By relying on a board that represents congressional districts elected every few years by caucuses of legislators, the existing structure encourages parochial thinking and insulates the [DOT] from those who are elected to serve our citizens," they wrote. "And the fact that this unaccountable board maintains sole discretion over a dedicated funding stream of over $2 billion provides very little transparency to the governor, the legislature, and the people of this state that the money they receive is spent in an efficient and strategic manner."
While the State Transportation Board is a constitutionally created entity, its duties are prescribed in Georgia's statutes.
Under the proposed legislation, the Transportation Board would remain intact and its main responsibility would be the selection of the DOT commissioner.
However, transportation budgeting, planning, and project selection would be assigned to the new State Transportation Authority.
The STA's board would be comprised of 11 members - five appointed by the governor, three appointed by the lieutenant governor, and three appointed by the speaker of the House.
The idea, so far, has not elicited major support or opposition among lawmakers, possibly because the 101-page bill only became available on Tuesday.
But it also sets the stage for a showdown between lawmakers and the governor over the highly charged issue of who controls transportation spending.
With Georgia's per-capita spending on transportation about the lowest of any state, lawmakers in the General Assembly have filed bills in the current session that would allow the state's four-cent sales tax to be increased by a penny and the proceeds dedicated to transportation.
The House proposal would increase the tax statewide. The Senate proposal would allow regions of the state to band together and increase the tax so the resulting transportation funding would be collected and used in those regions.
Both proposals would require a statewide referendum to amend the constitution.
If Georgia increases its sales tax for transportation, it would join only 13 other states that designate some portion of their general statewide sales tax to transportation, according to Jim Reed, the transportation program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
If Georgia's sales tax hike is eventually approved, it may become the only state to constitutionally enact a sales tax dedicated to transportation funding.
Ultimately, the transportation sales tax proposals hinge on the governor's approval. And Perdue has said he will not support measures to increase DOT funding without an overhaul of the way road projects are planned and funded.
The Georgia General Assembly is in session through April 3.