Atlanta to DC: Fund transportation already!
Federal Highway Trust Fund could run out as early as May
- Maggie Lee
- People are “tired of sitting traffic jams,” said Congressman David Scott, headlining a rally in favor of a big federal transportation spend in Atlanta on Thursday. Supporters seated behind him are MARTA CEO Keith Parker, DeKalb County Deputy COO Luz Borrero and Atlanta Regional Commission Executive Director Douglas Hooker.
On one of the first truly warm days of the year, some 200 people sweated in a hot amphitheater atop the Five Points MARTA station in Downtown to hear regional leaders urge Washington, D.C., to pass a transportation funding bill with billions of dollars for needed projects such as expanding MARTA.
“Transportation is the key that got us started and it is still the key that will open the door to new frontiers of jobs and of businesses,” said Congressman David Scott, D-Atlanta, pointing to the 19th century railroad and 20th century airport that built Atlanta and the larger metro region.
Georgia gets a little more than half its transportation dollars via the federal Highway Trust Fund — and that account is set to run out of money as soon as the end of next month. Scott supports a bill in Congress that would raise some $478 billion over six years, much of which would be used to replenish the trust fund, and would be worth $5 billion to $6 billion to Georgia.
Georgia’s Department of Transportation let no new building projects in January or February because cash is so uncertain.
Both the state and feds raise most of their transportation money by taxing gasoline. But as cars become more efficient, they use less gas. That results in motorists paying less gas taxes, yet they use just as much roadway. According to federal and local transportation officials, those taxes are no longer covering maintenance of the nation’s and state’s roads and bridges, much less expansion.
That dilemma was the driving reason behind business groups pushing state lawmakers to pass a road and bridge funding bill this most recent legislative session.
The bill in Congress would raise much of the money by taxing U.S. companies’ profits that are currently squirreled away overseas.
Building and repairing roads and bridges is only a first step, however, said Scott. The key to real economic growth, he said would be commuter rail linking one end of the state to the other.
A little closer to home, regional transportation bosses said big new dollars would go a long way toward maintaining what we have and starting projects as small as bike lanes and as large as building out MARTA through South DeKalb County.
“We often hear complaints coming from those who are fiscal conservatives saying transportation is an expense, it doesn’t pay for its way,” said Atlanta Regional Commission Executive Director Douglas Hooker. “Thank God President Dwight Eisenhower didn’t think that transportation wasn’t worth the investment, otherwise we wouldn’t have the interstate system that propelled the growth of this country.”
Hooker said the country is at a similar “inflection point” where big transportation decisions will lead to a strong economic future or a weak one.
MARTA CEO Keith Parker said his agency spends about $900 million on operations and capital investment every year. About $120 million comes from the feds, he said.
“If that $120 million dollars went away, this record-long period of no fare increase, ridership increases, investment in our employees, technological investments … that momentum could really be ground to a halt,” said Parker.
Gov. Nathan Deal plans to soon sign into law the major transportation bill that Gold Dome lawmakers passed last month. It will raise about $900 million annually starting this July for transportation. Some is old revenue that will now be dedicated to roads and bridges, but some is new money coming from a hike on the gas tax.
As for transit, the Legislature approved $75 million in bonds to be spent on mass transportation systems statewide next year.
The Atlanta rally was one of dozens nationwide, coordinated by the American Public Transportation Association, a lobby group.