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The avenues of transportation funding

POSTED: August 18, 2014 7:01 p.m.
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Sen. Jack Hill

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A Joint House-Senate Study Committee began work last week on transportation needs of the state and how those needs may be met in the coming years.

The transportation special purpose local options sales tax referendum of 2012 passed in only three regional development commission districts two years ago, but one of those districts includes counties in the Fourth Senatorial District. The Heart of Georgia Altamaha Region includes Emanuel, Candler, Tattnall and Evans counties, so a one percent sales tax collected in those counties is redistributed back to those counties for transportation improvements. Those four counties have divided over $2.3 million from the 1 percent TSPLOST from January 2013 to June 2014 just from the local 25 percent portion.

The other districts which passed the TSPLOST are Central Savannah River RDC, including Augusta, and River Valley RDC, including Columbus. The balance of the state is left to divide up the approximately $1 billion in state funds that are collected for transportation in the state.

Present transportation funding
Georgia provides state dollars for transportation from two dedicated sources:  motor fuel excise taxes and motor fuel sales taxes. The excise tax is collected on each gallon, presently by law, 7.5 cents per gallon. In the fiscal year ending in June, the state collected $448 million from this tax.  The 4 percent sales tax collected on motor fuel obviously rises as the price of fuel has gone up. But the governor and the Legislature have tended to freeze the tax when the retail price of fuel goes very high and did this year at the $3.329 per gallon level.

In FY 14, motor fuel sales taxes collected $568.8 million, which when combined with the excise tax brought the total collected to $1.016 billion, the second highest year ever. Only 3 cents of the 4 cents state sales tax on fuel goes for transportation. One cent goes in the state treasury to meet the state budget. That would total about $182 million dollars for a year.

Georgia — a state with wide-ranging transportation needs
Georgia is a large state, the largest state geographically east of the Mississippi. DOT reports that Georgia has the 10th-largest road system in the U.S., with 17,967 centerline miles of state routes and interstate. Not only that, there are another 100,000 miles plus of centerline county roads and city streets, and believe it or not, there are 14,666 bridge structures in Georgia and some 4,500 miles of mainline and shortline railroad systems.

Transportation is extremely important to economic activity in Georgia, partially because of its strategic location in the Southeast and the U.S.  Consider that the world’s busiest airport is in Atlanta, the fourth-busiest container port in the U.S. is Savannah and there are 128 transit providers, as well as 103 general aviation airports, around the state. So logistics is a front-burner issue in Georgia.

Important to Atlanta and to the state are the transit systems like MARTA and other systems that keep people moving in the Atlanta area and other metropolitan service areas. So suffice it to say, you cannot separate the economic future of the state from the transportation plans or lack of them.  No matter where you live or operate in Georgia, the various transportation systems whether in Atlanta or elsewhere affect us all.

Other funds for transportation, federal and local
Presently, Congress has not passed a long-range transportation bill that would return federal gas tax dollars to the state. Georgia has traditionally been a “donor state,” receiving less in return for the fuel tax dollars it sends to Washington.

Georgia depends heavily on the federal funds, which are derived from an 18.4 cents per gallon federal excise tax. Georgia has been getting approximately $1-1.2 billion yearly from the trust fund. That’s about the same amount the state raises.

How dependent is Georgia?  Over 50 percent of Georgia’s total funding, 52.27 percent, comes from federal funds. By contrast, North Carolina gets only 32.6 percent of its total for the feds. Local funds on motor fuel raised approximately $518 million in FY 13. But local governments are not mandated on what portion of the sales tax they collect is spent for transportation needs, although many counties do use SPLOST funds for local roads and bridges investments.

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood proposed to the committee in his appearance that the federal fuel tax rate should be raised 10 cents per gallon and that the amount should be indexed.

He also lamented the lack of Georgia representation on the House Transportation Committee which will eventually produce a formula for distribution of federal highway trust funds back to the states. There’s an old political saying: “If you’re not at the table, you are probably on the menu.”

Next week: Georgia’s transportation needs and are there options for increased funding?

I may be reached at
234 State Capitol, Atlanta, GA 30334
(404) 656-5038 (phone)
(404) 657-7092 (fax)
E-mail at Jack.Hill@senate.ga.gov
Or call toll-free at
1-800-367-3334 day or night
Reidsville office: (912) 557-3811

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