July 11--The Metro Atlanta Chamber plans to push for more state spending on transportation, wading back into charged political waters two years after metro voters sunk a regional penny sales tax that business leaders backed.
The chamber's new president and CEO, Hala Moddelmog, has joined a study committee including top state House and Senate lawmakers tasked with finding ideas for new transportation revenue sources.
New taxes and fees are generally non-starters in Georgia's GOP-dominated Legislature. It isn't clear if lawmakers might consider increases to the state's relatively low gas taxes or other avenues as vehicles are becoming more efficient.
The business coalition and its powerful board of corporate chiefs plan to make clear to lawmakers that the state risks companies moving jobs and facilities elsewhere because of Atlanta's gridlock.
Moddelmog called transportation "The number 1 issue."
"The goal of this (study committee) is to come out with information that would set a legislative agenda around transportation for 2015," she said.
Some who opposed the chamber-backed sales tax plan say they still don't trust the organization, and that there are other options to fix transportation problems besides raising taxes or fees.
Georgia ranks toward the bottom of transportation spending per capita, and the Georgia Department of Transportation Fact Book puts the state at 49 out of 50. There is a growing list of crumbling bridges and roads to repair, while the Federal Highway Trust Fund, fueled by an 18-cent per gallon tax on gasoline is giving less to states. The Georgia Department of Transportation admits it is in a financial fix.
In a 70-minute meeting with editors and reporters at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, chamber leaders said the region is falling behind rival cities in tackling congestion.
The chamber has long played a big role in shaping regional and state public policy, from helping change Georgia's flag to saving Grady Memorial Hospital.
But in 2012, the business community's effort to win voter support for the transportation sales tax, known as the T-SPLOST, failed miserably. Supporters warned there was no "Plan B" to tackle gridlock, but the T-SPLOST lost by a wide margin.
Critics said it was a deeply flawed plan. A large committee of local officials cobbled together a 10-year, $7 billion-plus grab bag of rail, road and sidewalk projects across 10 metro Atlanta counties that the tax would have paid for.
Some opposed the transit projects included, others the spending on more highways. Other voters thought their areas had nothing in the list. An odd coalition of tea party members, the Sierra Club and members of the NAACP spoke against it.
Transportation has remained a top issue for the chamber. But this time, the chamber won't push specific road or transit projects or a specific funding scheme, Cousins Properties President and CEO Larry Gellerstedt said. It will instead focus on the need and implore lawmakers to figure out specifics.
"Everybody says they are for jobs," Gellerstedt said. "We need to state the case very clearly ... the impact that (the lack of transportation investment) has economically on our businesses and the future business decisions that we make."
Atlanta companies "have alternatives where we make our investments in other regions," said Gellerstedt, who will be the chamber chairman next year.
Debbie Dooley, who led part of the opposition to the T-SPLOST as national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, said rejection of T-SPLOST didn't lead to economic ruin.
"In other words their talking points are the same doom and gloom talking points that we heard during the T-SPLOST debate," Dooley said. "But Georgia has actually created jobs (since the T-SPLOST vote)."
Dooley noted that many in the business community recently backed hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding for new stadiums for the Atlanta Falcons and Braves -- money she said could have gone to transportation.
Dooley said she backs proposed legislation for a T-SPLOST-lite, which would let county voters decide if their county would pair with neighbors to pool local sales taxes for local projects. The state also could devote the full portion of its 4 percent gasoline sales taxes to transportation, instead of splitting off one-quarter of that for the general fund.
Talk about transportation funding comes as federal highway spending is in doubt. The U.S. House and Senate are moving bipartisan temporary $11 billion proposals to pump money into the highway fund through May, but they disagree on how to pay for it.
The prospect of increasing transportation funding has not loomed large in the race for governor.
Both Gov. Nathan Deal and Democratic challenger Jason Carter supported T-SPLOST, although some Deal critics said he wasn't vocal enough. Since the vote he has said he felt it was his "responsibility" to embrace the tax hike, which passed in three of 12 regions of the state where it was proposed. He said those three -- the Augusta area, Columbus and the Dublin, Jesup and Vidalia area in east central Georgia -- made the smart choice.
"I say watch them grow," Deal said in 2012.
In his first term, Deal has prioritized the deepening of Savannah's port and backed new toll lanes on I-75 and I-575. He also has set in motion major upgrades for the Ga. 400/I-285 interchange. His office has no specific plans to increase state funding for transportation.
"There's still much to be accomplished in the next four years, but it'd be premature to comment on funding before Congress and the president pass a new transportation funding bill, which will have a tremendous impact on what we're able to do," said Deal spokesman Brian Robinson.
Carter said Deal issued an unwritten edict forbidding lawmakers from hashing out transportation solutions until after the election.
"We've now sat for two years and done nothing, and that's why we're in the problem we're in."
The Atlanta Democrat said broader debate is needed to determine if money can be found in the budget by cutting other programs, by pursuing more public-private partnerships or revisiting "T-SPLOST like activity."
Staff writer Daniel Malloy contributed to this article.
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