It turns out that you still can’t spell “transportation” in Georgia without T-R-U-S-T. Honk, spelling champs among us, if you see a problem.
It is an article of faith in metro Atlanta that legislators must finally pass a transportation funding bill this year. When the leaders of the House and Senate stood beside Gov. Sonny Perdue last month as he unveiled such a bill, the new plan looked set for a smooth ride.
But since then a familiar tension has resurfaced: Atlanta versus the rest of the state.
I’ve found very few people who dispute that the governor’s plan works for metro Atlanta. Some speed bumps would remain: What about the MARTA penny? Is eight years enough time for a penny sales tax for transportation? Would local governments have enough say in the project list? But these issues can be resolved.
People outside metro Atlanta, however, view the plan more skeptically.
Some regions are dominated by a single city. In the River Valley region, Columbus/Muscogee County accounts for more than half of the population and nearly two-thirds of the tax’s projected revenues; no other county in the region reaches even 10 percent by either measure. Smaller counties worry about being outvoted and made to pay for others’ improvements.
(For comparison’s sake, Fulton County has just a quarter of the population, and less than a third of the projected revenues, in the Atlanta Regional Commission, or ARC.)
The Northwest Georgia region stretches from Blue Ridge near the North Carolina border, to Trenton in the far northwest corner, all the way down to I-20 as it enters Alabama from Haralson County. Folks in Hiram probably care little about improving an intersection of state highways in Dalton, and vice versa.
You can fit a square peg into a round hole, if the peg is small enough. But a plan to raise billions of dollars in sales taxes to accelerate transportation projects is a pretty big peg.
Some local officials worry that they’ll go without state transportation dollars if they don’t pass the sales tax. Others are concerned that state funding will skip the regions that do pass the tax, cheating those who tax themselves.
Obviously, these scenarios cannot both be true. But the fact that these opposite fears have cropped up together speaks to the lack of trust local officials outside metro Atlanta — and perhaps some of the ones in it — have in the state when it comes to transportation.
The bill has provisions to allay such fears, such as a new formula to divide existing state transportation funds among the regions. But the fact that the formula has changed twice already this month, and rather sharply each time, undercuts the certainty it’s supposed to add.
What’s more, some local officials ask why they should take responsibility for what they argue is a state function.
All of this is bringing the bill’s passage into doubt if some compromises aren’t reached. One possibility is to let counties opt out of participating in their region’s plan. Would that undermine the bill’s basic premise? Perhaps. But it beats getting no bill.
A distant Plan B is to find a legal way to authorize a tax only for the Atlanta Regional Commission. Better for legislators to pass an actual “ARC bill” than to reject what they think is just an “ARC bill.”