Georgia leaders try to set transportation strategy

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ATLANTA - Georgia transportation leaders are seeking to rally around a clear strategy of renovating existing roadways and squashing congestion in the state's economic hubs.

Funding shortfalls have plagued the system for 20 years, partly because an alphabet soup of regional planning agencies and mass transit advocates have battled each other for precious state and federal funding.

But agency heads said at a transportation summit Wednesday that the unsettled economy - and fears that companies are fleeing Georgia because of Atlanta's traffic-choked streets - is forcing them to cooperate in unprecedented ways.

They said the need to present a united front is even more pressing as the incoming Obama administration prepares an economic stimulus package that many believe will favor "shovel-ready" projects that could begin within months.

"If we're not hand-in-hand on this, we're going to be sitting by while other people take the money," said Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Gena Evans said.

It remains to be seen, however, whether this sense of unity will spread to powerbrokers in the state Legislature, who defeated a proposal last year to adopt a new sales tax to help fund more transportation projects.

The plan to allow local governments to levy a 1-cent sales tax to pay for the improvements passed the House last year, but fell three votes short of passing the Senate. Legislators are expected to consider a similar scheme this year, but many say they're still unconvinced.

State Rep. Tom Graves, for one, said at the summit Wednesday he is reluctant to sign off on a plan that would raise millions in new revenue without specifying how the money should be spent.

Transportation leaders sought to calm those fears by lining up behind what Dick Anderson of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority called a "battle plan" for a statewide transportation strategy.

The so-called "IT3" plan doesn't specify which projects should be funded. But it contends that infrastructure dollars should focus on renovating existing roads and reducing congestion around main employment areas.

It advocates funding high-occupancy toll lanes and other methods to help tens of thousands of more workers to move through congested areas, which supporters say would boost economic impact by billions of dollars.

But state officials must also grapple with a more immediate funding crisis.

Evans warned that debt payments could soon take up as much as 25 percent of the state transportation department's budget, and she warned that falling gas tax revenues could cost the system another $50 million.

The funding woes have also devastated Atlanta's MARTA public transit system. General manager Beverly Scott said she could be forced to lay off dozens of employees, impose higher ticket fees, and cut routes and other services if more funding isn't arranged.

Not surprisingly, Scott and other transit gurus said cutting funding to projects will send the wrong message to federal officials primed to pump billions of dollars into infrastructure projects around the nation.

"We cannot have a slash-and-burn mentality here and expect we'll be competitive in Washington for any federal funding," she said. And if no clear message emerges from Georgia, she warned, "we'll be cannibalized while the rest of the nation goes to the bank."


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