Money for roads, rail fails in Legislature

Lack of action leaves Atlanta in gridlock

It was, in many ways, the perfect slice of legislation.

Senate Resolution 845 – the constitutional amendment that would've allowed counties in metro areas to join together to levy a one-cent sales tax for transportation projects – had the support. More than 50 stakeholders, including business leaders, environmental groups and public-transit advocates were on board. The road builders saw a hefty chunk of change and grinned. It even had language that would've raised money by shifting a penny from the gasoline tax and raising nearly $180 million without a tax increase. If legislation were a song, then SR 845 would be "We Are The World."

But all that wasn't enough. In the rush to midnight on sine die, the final day of the 2008 General Assembly, the resolution fell three votes short of a required two-thirds constitutional majority.

And, once again, the legislative session ended with lawmakers failing to deal with one of the state's most pressing problems. The funding could've generated the cash to lay concrete or construct light rail – two key components of plans that are aimed at getting the area out of gridlock.

The Legislature's lack of action brought a sharp retort from Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. "The business community is absolutely frustrated that the state's leadership has not been able to move this issue," Williams says. "What they can blame it on is petty fights about taxes and egos in both chambers. This is not going away."

The transportation bill seemed doomed as soon as Gov. Sonny Perdue came out against the proposed constitutional amendment, and also promised to campaign against it if it went on the ballot in November.

Perdue said after the session it was for the best that the measure didn't pass because he wants to give new state Department of Transportation Commissioner Gena Abraham a chance to reform the dysfunctional agency before he tosses it more money.

Some supporters blame Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle for not pushing the measure through the Senate. But Cagle says he's as disappointed it didn't pass as they are.

"Pointing fingers at each other isn't going to do a thing to relieve congestion," he says. "We need to spend the next several months perfecting the proposal and building support for it so we can move quickly and decisively early in the next legislative session."

Williams says the problem is that everyone complains about traffic in the Atlanta area, but no one ever does anything about it.

"Unfortunately, the leadership in this state has not stressed transportation at all," Williams says. "We've been talking about this for the past six years. Every time we try to do something, we are told, 'Wait another year, wait another year.' People are fed up and we should let our elected officials know in the loudest voice possible."

Of the 18 senators who voted against the resolution, five were from metro Atlanta districts – areas in which constituents face congestion on a daily basis.

Some voted against it because of grudges against the chambers of commerce that represent greater Atlanta and the state of Georgia for their lobbying efforts on behalf of restructuring Grady Memorial Hospital. Others blame the bill's late arrival from the House, less than an hour before the session ended. And some decided to band with Perdue.

Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who did not register a vote on the resolution, says the chamber failed to explain the nuances of the resolution when it came in front of the Senate in the waning moments of the session.

"The chamber lost that bill for themselves," Fort says. "After the initial vote, no one talked to me at all about it. So to criticize me for not voting for it is preposterous."

He isn't alone in that sentiment. "The Metro Atlanta Chamber seems to have lost its focus in the critical hours before the vote," says Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, who voted against the resolution and also said it wasn't adequately explained. "They were more concerned with fighting over the Grady legislation than promoting the transportation resolution. It did not affect my vote, but it affected others."

Williams thinks the chamber did everything it could to push the legislation. "I can't think of a single thing that all those groups could've done to have lobbied more effectively," he says. "What they can blame it on is petty fights about taxes and egos in both chambers."

He says the resolution fell victim to a Republican leadership that is reluctant to move forward. "The governor came out against the bill and urged people not to vote for it," Williams says. "The conferees were not given the green light by the Senate leadership until 10 p.m. on sine die. And the Senate leadership was not enthusiastic about the bill."

The defeat poses a serious problem for metro planners charged with easing the area's congestion.

"We just completed, within the last seven or eight months, a revision of our transportation plan that required us to cut $4.5 billion out of it," says Tom Weyandt, a planning director at the Atlanta Regional Commission. "Given what we obviously see are increasing needs that are left unfulfilled and increasing costs of projects, we're probably facing the prospect of cutting several billion dollars more over the next couple years."

Of the money left, about 60 percent will go to maintaining what we already have in place.

"You've got to repave roads, you've got to fix traffic signals," Weyandt says. "It's certainly true that we haven't added to the capacity. If you think about the big projects right now – there's the 316 interchange and the rebuilding of the 14th Street bridge. And transit expansion is zilch."

Planners are already looking at alternative funding sources. Just last week, George Zier of the state attorney general's office presented an innovative concept to a DOT committee that could pay for a commuter rail network throughout the region.

Currently, lease agreements the state has with railroad companies funnel millions of dollars to the general fund. By shifting those dollars to the DOT, commuter rail throughout the region could be partially or even completely funded.

But there's a problem with Zier's idea: It'll take an act of the General Assembly to shift those dollars.