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Tuesday, February 4, 2014 - 3:03am

Renewed Hunt On For State Road Money

Georgia’s transportation budget is up a little this year, thanks to an uptick in tax receipts. But analysts say there’s a bigger problem: more projects than money, and a good bit of debt.

“We consistently have the best maintained roads in the country. We consistently do things on a shoestring budget,” Keith Golden, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation, told legislators at a hearing at the state Capitol recently.

“Transportation is the driving force behind the strong economy. We’ve got to make investments in transportation if we want to continue to grow jobs in Georgia,” Golden said.

“Our per-capita invest in transportation is low,” he said. “We (have) one of the lowest gasoline taxes in the country” at roughly 19.3 cents per gallon. Of that, 16.3 cents, worth roughly $800 million annually in the past few years, goes to GDOT.

Much of the rest of its roughly $2 billion budget comes from Washington, D.C., for the year that ends this July. Debt service totals $401 million.

Of course, no agency head ever shows up at a budget hearing without wanting more money.

But “the obvious transportation needs are far beyond our ability to pay,” said Alan Essig, executive director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit based in Atlanta.

Indeed, enough people agree that more cash needs to be put into roads, rails and bridges that something may happen on that front.

Building on failure

But first, anyone who wants more transportation money has to consider that voters have already said they don’t want to pay an extra penny in sales taxes -- at least not as the Legislature proposed in a 2012 public referendum. Voters in just three of 12 regions agreed to a new tax for transportation work.

Some were for and some were against the regional tax plan, said state Senate Democratic Leader Steve Henson of Tucker, “but most felt we had infrastructure problems, ... that we need to fund our roads.”

Supporters -- mostly politicos and chambers of commerce -- put a lot of time, effort and sometimes money into wooing their voters. Detractors launched a range of criticisms. Houston County voters revolted against the tax idea on the grounds that an 8 percent sales tax is too much. The proposition passed only in the regions that run roughly in a V-shaped line from Columbus through Dublin toward Augusta.

Washington and Laurens counties already are “reaping the rewards” for approving the tax, said state Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch.

And the rejection of the tax across most of the midstate, he said, is slowing down projects such as the Interstate 16 and I-75 upgrade and the Middle Georgia Regional Airport runway extension...