House leaders propose sales tax to fund transport

ATLANTA - Georgia House leaders revived an effort Monday for a 1 percent statewide sales tax that would funnel $25 billion into transportation projects over the next decade across Georgia.


The proposal comes loaded with transportation projects to coax legislators who have been reluctant to support past tax-raising efforts - and who may be even more wary this year amid the economic slump.

State Rep. Vance Smith, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said he's confident the measure will earn the support it needs in the House. But it remains to be seen whether it will win over voters in the Senate.

That chamber is pressing its own plan that would allow regions to band together to charge a one-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects. The House begrudgingly embraced the regional plan last year, only to watch as the effort fell one vote short in the Senate.

And both versions must overcome pockets of opposition from conservative lawmakers, who fear that a tax hike during a recession could stifle Georgia's hopes for an economic recovery.

Smith and House leaders contend that a statewide tax is the best way to fund broader transportation improvements. He sought to promote that argument by using maps and charts that detail how the money would be spent.

It promises some juicy dollops for traffic-choked metro Atlanta, including funding for a streetcar route in the heart of the city, a rail line that would stretch to Athens and money for the Beltline project, which would create a ring of parks and light rail around Atlanta.

But Smith spent a considerable amount of time detailing the plan's impact on rural Georgia. In fact, his first three maps skirted the Atlanta region altogether, with one showing the metro area as a white spot.

The plan would fund dozens of projects to widen roads and revamp trucking routes crisscrossing the state. It includes $500 million to pave rural Georgia's dirt roads, $1 billion to repair or replace bridges and $400 million to upgrade airports.

It also promises to lavish attention on economic centers that dot the state through a population formula to dole out money to the 30 biggest cities outside metro Atlanta, from Augusta to Valdosta.

The proposal must earn two-thirds approval in both chambers and support from a majority of voters in 2010. An 11-member advisory board, appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker, would track the funds. The tax would expire at the end of 2020.

Prodded by powerful business lobbies, legislative leaders have made a transportation funding strategy one of their top priorities this session. But a rift between supporters of a statewide tax and a regional one still threatens measure's fate.

House Speaker Glenn Richardson, a firm supporter of a statewide tax, said Smith's proposal is the type of "bold, forward-thinking" measure that could relieve congestion and spur economic development.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and his allies have backed the regional scheme as a more focused brand of transportation funding. But State Sen. Jeff Mullis, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, has also said he would be willing to sort out a compromise.


A list of the proposed projects:

House Resolution 206, House Bill 277: