To tell you the truth, it’s a bit hard to believe.
After years of disappointment and frustration, of false starts, unkept promises and half-baked proposals, state leaders have come up with a realistic means of financing and building much-needed regional transportation infrastructure, including transit projects.
It’s actually a serious, workable, well-thought-out and balanced piece of legislation.
To make things even better, state leaders seem strongly unified in their support for House Bill 1218, which was introduced Tuesday after weeks of negotiation behind closed doors.
Gov. Sonny Perdue, for example, had a big hand in the bill’s creation; his House floor leader is its chief sponsor. House Speaker David Ralston and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Roberts are co-sponsors, which bodes well for its prospects in the House.
On the Senate side, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle also supports the approach and is “looking on it very favorably,” according to his office.
So … pass the thing, quickly, before this sudden outbreak of sanity ends!
As written, the bill divides Georgia into 12 special transportation districts. The metro Atlanta district, for example, comprises the current 10-county Atlanta Regional Commission.
Each county in the district would be represented in a regional roundtable by its county commission chair and a mayor. Together, those elected leaders would be empowered to propose a special 1-penny sales tax to be collected in the district for eight years, as well as a list of transportation projects to be funded through the tax.
Voters within the district would then be asked to approve both the tax and the list of projects.
Unlike some earlier legislative attempts, HB 1218 would ensure that all money raised by the tax would be spent on projects within that district rather than diverted into state coffers. In another crucial provision, individual counties would not have the ability to “opt out” of a district or a proposed tax.
Until now, those have been difficult provisions for state leaders to accept. Perdue, Ralston, Cagle and others deserve credit for stepping up and recognizing how important it is to the state and region to make this proposal workable.
The bill also marks another step in the gutting of the dysfunctional state Department of Transportation, once a powerhouse of state politics. Under HB 1218, the State Road and Tollway Authority, not the DOT, would be given primary authority to oversee construction of projects financed through a regional sales tax.
The most sensitive part of the legislation involves the power to decide which projects will be proposed to the voters of each region. Will that authority be given to the state transportation planning director, by law an appointee of the governor? Or will elected regional leaders have the power to decide which projects will be built in their region, financed with their constituents’ tax dollars?
There’s no question that regional projects have to be incorporated into the state’s overall transportation network, which argues for giving the state planning director a lot of influence.
On the other hand, it’s hard to justify giving an appointed bureaucrat more power over regional projects than local leaders answering directly to the voters who will pay for and use those projects.
HB 1218 tries to cut that baby in half, and to a surprising degree it succeeds.
The language lets the planning director guide the project selection process and set parameters, while giving regional leaders the final voice in selecting projects for submission to voters.
Of course, how that process works in real life, as opposed to how it’s described in legislative language, will depend a lot on the personalities and politics involved. But the bill does seem to have found a nice balance.
The bill also suspends a state law that requires MARTA to spend at least 50 percent of its sales-tax revenue on capital projects rather than operations. That change will give the agency some flexibility in addressing its immediate fiscal crisis, but it won’t come close to solving MARTA’s larger woes.
HB 1218 also doesn’t address the fact that Fulton and DeKalb counties already levy a penny sales tax to support MARTA, while other metro counties do not.
That’s an inequity that ought to be addressed, but this bill isn’t the place to do it.
One miracle at a time.