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Cagle urges 'big and bold' approach to transportation issues
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ATHENS — In the face of a nationwide infrastructure crisis, Georgia needs to be “big and bold” in meeting its long-term transportation needs, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle told a large gathering of transportation officials Tuesday.

“It would be easy for someone to say, ‘Well, let’s just raise the motor fuel tax,’” he said. “And in some ways, that would take care of many needs (in the) short term.”

Cagle, addressing the 2014 Transportation Summit, along with Gov. Nathan Deal, said, “If you look at communities that have stepped up ... I will tell you that they saw and they understood they have a problem that’s in need of a solution.

“And they were willing to make an investment to ensure that a meaningful solution was put in place to continue prosperity.”

Cagle said as far as Georgia is concerned, “it’s incumbent on us to do the same.”

State and federal governments both have struggled with how to pump more money into roads. A 2012 sales tax referendum adding a 1 percent tax for transportation failed in nine of 12 regions in Georgia, including Hall and the rest of the Georgia mountain counties.

And Congress hasn’t passed any long-term transportation funding plans. The current plan is an extension to May 31 of a spending law that ended Sept. 30.

After hearing largely from constituents for the past few months, the state’s Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding is set to issue a report by the end of this month on ways Georgia could boost transportation spending.

“Costs are skyrocketing if you look at what it costs to build an interstate highway,” state Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, has said. “Our secondary roads, bridges and back roads are falling apart as well, so we have a real problem.”

Gooch and state Rep. Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, serve as chairmen of the Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding.

The committee plans to present recommendations to the General Assembly, which convenes Jan. 12.

Gooch also spoke at the summit, which drew some 700-plus engineers, government leaders and politicians statewide to the Classic Center. He said the committee is still looking at all options and repeated that the report would be forthcoming.

Deal, in his remarks to the group, deferred to the committee’s recommendations.

“I would not get in front of them or anticipate what their report is going to say,” he said. “I’m going to let them surprise us all at the appropriate time.

“But I do want to thank them for being willing to take on this issue. It is something that is politically difficult and I think you all hopefully understand (that),” Deal said.

The committee “stands to get praised but also stands to get condemnation.”

The gas tax is an especially touchy issue, as it serves as the primary revenue source for the federal Highway Trust Fund. Federal dollars are a huge contributor to road and bridge projects nationwide, and the 18-cent federal gas tax has stayed steady for a couple of decades.

“I know you all are here to tell us how bad we are, how much behind we are, how much of (a) deficit we have in funding transportation,” Deal told the audience. “... Before we get too down on ourselves, let’s remember that we have done a lot of good things.”

He cited a few examples, including success of the toll-driven Express Lanes on Interstate 85 in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties and improvements planned at Ga. 400 and Interstate 285, “one of the most congested areas in our state and maybe even the country.”

Deal said he “would always have transportation as one of the most important areas where we need to focus and where we need to make constant improvements.”

Citing Georgia as the nation’s eighth most populated state, up from No. 10 when Deal first took office four years ago, he said, “People are coming to Georgia and when they come, they bring transportation issues with them.

“It’s all our job to welcome them to our state and make sure we can accommodate their needs and the needs of the rest of us already here.”