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Our Views: Capitol Avenue gridlock
Competing transportation boards, tax plans seek to keep control of road funds in Atlanta
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If you think traffic in Northeast Georgia is a snarled, hopeless mess, get a load of the proposed solutions coming from the state Capitol. When it comes to fixing Georgia's highways, there always are routes running in different directions with a wide median in-between.

To start with, we are on the way to having two conflicting boards making transportation decisions. One is the existing state Transportation Board, which made news last week by firing Commissioner Gena Evans.

That move likely was spurred by one the week prior when Gov. Sonny Perdue, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Speaker Glenn Richardson pushed creation of a new Transportation Authority, with 11 members selected by them, to supersede the old board. The Senate approved that plan on Thursday.

Beyond that internal squabble, we now have conflicting transportation tax plans headed for a collision in the legislature.
The Senate plan passed earlier in the session would allow communities to band together and levy sales taxes that target specific projects in the area. The so-called T-SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) would let local voters decide if they want to pay that extra tax.

The House, not surprisingly, has a different idea. It passed a plan that would impose a statewide 1 percent sales tax to raise $25 billion for road construction over the next decade. The projects would be spread throughout the state, many concentrated in heavily congested metro Atlanta.

The decision on where to spend the money would be decided by an oversight committee consisting of House members, in conjunction with the state Road and Tollway Authority, which is run by the deposed Evans.

So yet another governing body will be moving around road money. Lord help us if they all start paving the same stretch of highway.

Of the two plans floated in the legislature, we think the Senate version makes more sense by leaving control in the hands of local governments.

The beauty of any SPLOST is that the projects funded by tax revenue are local, hence the "L" in the acronym. The penny per dollar you pay at area stores will go to pay for improvements in your own backyard.

Under the Senate plan, a local jurisdiction could prioritize road construction needs and channel money toward them. Say Hall County decided to fix up or widen a road leading to Forsyth County. The two commissions could agree on a plan, settle on a cost and let voters in both counties decide whether to fund it. The sales tax would be targeted to that one undertaking. When that's done, Hall could turn to another county and do the same, with voters again allowed to decide.

Control of the money and decisions on which projects to pursue would stay at the local level, with voters getting the final say in each case. Communities would pay for their own needs but not be asked to fix roads across the state they may never lay eyes on.

The House version, however, appears to be just another top-down approach. The committee assigned to choose the road work and allocate the money would be guided by politics, as would members chosen to the committee in the first place. In other words, more of the same.

One frequent spat over transportation is how much money and attention Atlanta should get compared to the rest of the state. There's no denying that the metro area needs relief, with millions of commuters fanning out daily in every direction over highways that seem to become obsolete almost as soon as the last stripe is painted on them. Yet is it fair for the capital city to get a lion's share of transportation funds at the expense of other growing communities?

The House one-size-fits-all state tax would maintain that status quo, perpetuating battles between metro legislators and their down-state colleagues over how to parcel out revenues. Under that proposal, everyone would pay for construction whether they used the roads or not. While the plan provides some funds for local jurisdictions to apply as they wish, the bulk of the money would go to a pre-approved list of projects.

Perhaps the idea of giving up control to local governments is why the House was eager to devise a different plan. Anything that takes decision-making away from the Gold Dome is going to be frowned upon by the lawmaking class.

Transportation is a huge enterprise in Georgia, in both money and influence. The ability to slide a little road money to a colleague in exchange for support of an unrelated bill could be an effective political tool. Sponsors had to fold in goodies throughout the state to get the votes needed for passage, but how much goes to each would still be up to the committee put in charge of the tax money.

That kind of deal-making over the years helped create the dysfunction of our current transportation system. It may be why the board soured on Evans, a Perdue protege who sought to shine a bright light on dirty deals in her short term in office. Whatever her strengths or weaknesses personal discretion being the latter — she bucked the ol' boy system and paid for it with her head.

That likely is why Sonny, Casey and Glenn decided to form their own road authority. But as long as it's based in the Capitol and run by state officials and lawmakers, political deal-making is inevitable. Asking politicians not to act politically is like asking a dog not to scratch his fleas. It's the nature of the beast.

The T-SPLOST plan offered by the Senate is a win-win for local governments and residents, while the House plan for more state control is nothing but an extra tax and more fingers in the pie. If you are going to shell out extra sales tax money for roads, where would you like it to be spent: In your own community, on roads used by you and your neighbors? Or tossed into another big pile in Atlanta to be handed out by politicians to further their own agendas?

That's an easy choice. Let's keep that in mind when it comes time to approve a plan in a constitutional referendum, and let your lawmakers know which plan works best for Georgia residents.

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