Episode 37 – Georgia Transportation Funding

Topics: Transportation Funding

Websites and Citations:

Hello and welcome to another edition of Talking Traffic. My name is Bill Ruhsam and I host this podcast and its sister website, talking traffic dot org. Today is Monday, March 7, 2011. This is episode 37 of Talking traffic and today I’ll be talking about transportation funding. Specifically, transportation funding in Georgia.

Firstly, a warning and a reference. This episode is `about a bill that was signed into law last year here in the great state of Georgia USA. It’s complex, and convoluted and an example of why politics is so messy. If you’re interested in hard, fast, take-it-to-the-road facts about transportation, this is not your episode. Go. Run.

However, if you’re interested in what three years and a lot of political wrangling can produce and how it looks when the light of day shines on it, keep on! This is the episode for you. I encourage my Georgia listeners to stay the course because you will all be voting for or against this funding package on August 15th, 2012. Yes, 2012. We’ll cover that in a moment.

And, I mentioned that I’d give you a reference. Well, I’m referencing you back to Episode 26 of this very podcast: Transportation funding in the United States. That episode talks about the basics of how Americans fund their roads. *This* episode is getting into the specifics of how Georgians *may* decide to supplement their funding revenues. On with the show…

The first thing I’m going to do is summarize what House Bill 277 of 2010 enables for Georgia. Then I’ll discuss its specifics in general form. Lastly I’ll discuss its specifics. Seriously, it’s that complicated.

In short, House Bill 277, also called the Transportation Investment Act of 2010, enables voter referenda on a 1% sales tax for transportation funding. This sales tax would apply regionally, rather than statewide.  That’s the easy part. I just gave you the “in short”. Here’s the “in medium”.

This bill sets up what’s called a “regional roundtable” that will select from a set of projects that will be implemented with the funding acquired by the sales tax. There will be twelve roundtables, one for each region. These roundtables will comprise elected officials from the cities and counties and would have the discretion to select and approve the project list.  Once the project list is approved by the roundtables, it goes before the voters, again on August 15, 2012, who will vote the 1% sales tax up or down.

That was medium. The devil is in the details, however, and this law has a lot of details. If you want to stop now, I don’t blame you, because we’re about to go running down the rabbit hole.

Here are the details. From the signing of this bill by the Governor to the August 2012 vote, there are a lot of things that must be done. Some of which are already completed. After all, this bill was signed into law a year ago in 2010.

Step One: Step one is actually step zero because it wasn’t enacted by the new law, it’s something that has been in place. Step one is for the Planning Director of the state of Georgia to submit the Statewide Strategic Transportation Plan, which has to be approved by the Governor and the State Transportation Board.

Step two: The Planning Director submits a list of recommended criteria for selection of projects. The types of criteria that the director can recommend are spelled out by statute, but there is lots of wiggle room for specifics. The recommended criteria are sent to local planning organizations and governments within the twelve special districts or regions. The organizations and governments have a set amount of time to comment on the recommended criteria.

Step three: The regional roundtables are assembled. These roundtables comprise two representatives from each county within the region. The representatives are the County Commissioner and a Mayor who is elected from amongst all the mayors of the county.

So, on to Step 4: each regional roundtable selects from within its membership 5 members who will be the Executive Committee. And just to make it even more fun… well let me quote from the law:

The executive committee shall also include two members of the House of Representatives selected by the chairperson of the House Transportation Committee and one member of the Senate selected by the chairperson of the Senate Transportation Committee. Each member of the General Assembly appointed to the executive committee shall be a nonvoting member of the executive committee and shall represent a district which lies wholly or partially within the region represented by the executive committee. The executive committee shall not have more than one representative from any one county, but any member of the General Assembly serving on the executive committee shall not count as a representative of his or her county.

Fun, don’t you think?

This might not sound too complicated, but remember that there are twelve regions defined in this law. And Georgia has 159 counties. If you do the math, that means that each roundtable will consist of 26.5 members, on average. 26 politicians. And there’s the 3 non voting members of the executive council, for 29 total politicians.

Step 5 is for each regional roundtable to review and amend or approve the set of criteria that were produced during step 2.

Step 6 enables local governments, which means everyone besides the State of Georgia, to propose projects for inclusion in the list of things to be paid for by the new sales tax. This list doesn’t have to be fiscally constrained. In other words, this list is the whole kit and caboodle; the wish list for everything everybody wants done. The planning director takes these suggestions and compiles a comprehensive list of potential projects for each of the twelve regions.

Step 7. Wow there’s a lot of steps. Keep in mind that these numbered steps are my own breakdown. This is not specified in the law. Step 7 is for the executive committee to select from the potential project list those that fit within the projections for income over the ten years that this 1% sales tax will take place. Yes, ten years. After the executive committee has approved the list, the roundtable will “consider it”. That’s what it says in the law. I’m not sure what that means.

Anyway, step 7 continues with public meetings that present the proposed project list to the public and everyone has the opportunity to comment on it. After all the public comments and any revisions, the roundtable as a whole has to vote the list up, or down. If they do not approve the list, then amendments and revisions can be negotiated that take into account the criteria established back up in step two.  Then they can vote again. Their deadline for approval is October 15, 2011. I’ll cover what happens if they don’t approve it in a moment.

All right. Are you bored or confused yet? I’d be confused too, if I didn’t have a crib sheet in front of me. So far we’ve established 12 regional roundtables and those roundtables have approved a list of projects by October 15, 2011.

Now we move on to step 8. Statewide referenda! On August 15, 2012 (unless they move the date between now and then) the voters in each region will be called on to vote yea or nay on the sales tax. The tax will go specifically to funding that list of approved projects, plus some other stuff, which I’ll discuss in a second. If approved, the tax will begin to be collected the following January and will continue for 10 years, or until the revenues have succeeded in financing the entire project list, whichever comes first.

But let’s talk about sticks and carrots. I’ve assumed during this discussion that everything would be approved by the roundtables and the voters. What if it isn’t? There are some significant sticks built into the law which come into play at various times, and there are some carrots, too. Sticks first:

In order to talk about the sticks I need to remind you that most transportation projects are paid for partially or wholly with state or federal funds. A typical split is 80% state or federal and 20% local. If the roundtable doesn’t approve a list of projects by October 15, 2011, then the region is declared to be in “special district gridlock”. Yes, that’s written into the law. If this occurs, then two things happen. The first is that the local match goes to 50% and the second is a requirement that 2 years pass before the roundtable can try again to reach a consensus. That’s 2 years with a 50% local funding match for every local government within the region. Stick number one.

Stick number two occurs at the general referendum. If the voters do not approve the list of projects and the sale tax, then the local match climbs to 30% and stays there for at least 2 years. The law reads, “for at least 2 years and until such time as a special district sales tax is approved”. So even if the very next month there is a special election that approves the tax, the local governments in that region will still be stuck with the 30% match for 2 years.

Those are the sticks. The carrots involve the local match, but also the “other stuff” I mentioned before. If the voters approve the sales tax, the local match drops to 10% for the entire period of the sales tax. That’s a boon for local governments, assuming that the state has the other 90% to throw into the pot. The “other stuff” involves how the sales tax is split during the ten years it’s being levied.

The tax will be collected regionally, and 75% of the tax will go to funding the project list that was approved by the voters. The other 25% will be distributed back to the local governments based upon a formula that the state department of transportation has been using for years. That 25% can be used by local governments for transportation projects of their own designation, in any manner they choose. It can be used for 100% locally funding projects or it could be used as the 10% local match to get additional state funding. So the local governments have incentive beyond the project list for seeing that the voters approve the tax.

That was the long version of the Bill. If you want to know the fully-fleshed out version, I encourage you to read the bill for yourself, which I’ve linked to in the show notes. Believe it or not, I *still* glossed over some details in that description.

So we have a transportation bill that imposes a 1% sales tax, to be collected and distributed regionally. The regions determine their own list of projects, based on a master list provided by the state planning director. The regions have powerful incentives to both approve their lists and to vote yes on the tax. The tax will be in place for ten years.  That’s about the shape of things.

Can you smell the scent of politics? This is just ripe with it! Getting this tax past the voters at the end of a recession is going to be a challenge to say the least.

For the record, I am in favor of this levy. Why? Well, from a personal standpoint, this tax would pay for projects which pay for my livelihood. From a more regional standpoint, this is the only tool we have right now to pay for necessary infrastructure maintenance and improvements. The well is dry, people, and the gas tax that is currently in place is worth less every year. No legislator is going to propose a fuel-tax increase this year, so our options are limited.  Additionally, from a regional standpoint, the more rural counties and cities should be in favor of this levy. Their share of the 25% is as much or more than they’d get from their own 1% sales tax, if they enacted one.

But this isn’t about Georgia politics. This is about how complicated transportation funding can be when the realities of life and politics are forced up against the realities of needing additional monies. Everyone acknowledges that there is a significant funding gap, nationwide, for transportation infrastructure. The hard part is doing something about it. My description of Georgia’s law is illustrative of what is going on across the country. You may not be aware, but one of the agenda items for this year in Washington is to take up the next transportation funding act. The last one, SAFETEA-LU, expired last year and has been extended to enable the highway trust fund to keep operating. There may be some big changes coming out of the next one.

I’m in favor of transportation infrastructure funding not just because it pays my bills but because it’s what makes a vibrant, strong economy. Like it or not, the stuff we produce and consume has to move around. Those highways aren’t just ways for you to get to Boca quickly. They’re the lifeblood of our economy. On a local basis, the funding applies to transit and to bike lanes, to streetscape improvements and sidewalks that make our towns more livable. Please remember this if it comes your turn to vote for a transportation funding measure.

Thanks for listening to talking traffic. If you have strong opinions about what you just heard, feel free to send an email to bill at talkingtraffic.org or leave a comment on the show notes. I encourage vigorous debate.

The music you’ve been listening to is by five star fall and can be found at magnatune .com. This episode is released under a creative commons attribution share alike 3.0 license. Feel free to distribute and/or modify this podcast, but please link back to me and to talkingtraffic.org.

Until next time, have a great week.

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