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Commissioners still have questions on transportation resolution
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Effingham County commissioners aren’t ready to sign off on a resolution forged by a statewide legislative committee exploring ways to finance transportation improvements.

Commissioners agreed they support alternative means of funding transportation infrastructure, but they wanted more information about what they were backing before opting to approve it. They opted not to take any action at this time on a proposed resolution, removing it from their Jan. 20 agenda.

A joint study committee issued its reports and recommendations Dec. 30. Commissioners voted at their Jan. 3 meeting to table the resolution.

“I don’t think anyone has had time to read and digest it,” County Administrator Toss Allen said.

Chairman Wendall Kessler said he was looking for a resolution that said the commissioners were in favor of another transportation special purpose local option sales tax.

“I think we need to get something more definitive to look at,” he said of the resolution.

The annual 40-day General Assembly began Jan. 12. The committee was supposed to make its recommendations to the Legislature by Nov. 30 but asked for an extension to late December.

State Sen. Jack Hill and state Rep. Jon Burns were members of the Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding. Meetings were held across the state, including at the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center on Hutchinson Island. Kessler, County Administrator Toss Allen and Commissioners Phil Kieffer and Reggie Loper attended that committee meeting.

“I thought it would be a good idea to have a resolution in support of alternate transportation funding,” Allen said.

The Association of County Commissioners of Georgia issued a one-page summary of the joint study committee’s findings. The committee is recommending to recapitalize the Georgia Transportation Infrastructure Bank, making more money for grants or loans available to local governments. Those projects, which would be done without the involvement of federal money, could be done faster.

The lawmakers also are suggesting that the local maintenance improvement grants, money directed to communities for roadwork, should be doubled. They also recommend converting a local motor fuel sales tax into a local prepaid transportation tax. Lawmakers believe it will provide local governments more money, with revenue to be split using the current LMIG formula.

In their 23-page report, lawmakers on the committee said “Georgia’s current investment in transportation infrastructure significantly constrains the state’s ability to meet its expected needs over the coming 20 years.” The state’s 2005-35 strategic transportation plan projects $160 billion in transportation infrastructure funding. Revenue projections for the same period are for $86 billion, leaving a $74 billion gap. Infrastructure consultants HTNB also verified an annual funding hole of $1 billion-$1.5 billion for roads and bridges maintenance.

Georgia is 49th in spending per capita on its roads but its number of total lane miles surpasses that of Florida and Illinois, and its total of center lane miles tops that of Florida, Illinois and California. But while Georgia spent $1.3 billion on transportation in 2012, spending in the other three states was three times that figure. Illinois had a budget of $3.5 billion, California spent $4 billion on transportation and Florida spent $4.4 billion.

Concerns over the motor fuel tax’s ability to address future transportation needs spurred the Legislature to convene the study committee. For fiscal year 2014, the state received $1.2 billion in federal money to augment the $1 billion collected in state motor fuel taxes for transportation, and there is uncertainty over the continuation of the Federal Highway Trust Fund.

“Congress has demonstrated an increased reluctance to deal with significant infrastructure funding issues in a responsible, forward-looking manner,” the study committee report said. “Second, Georgia is required to comply with numerous federal requirements, including federal environmental and labor laws, when federal funds are used for capital construction projects. This creates numerous compliance challenges and often results in project delays and significant additional compliance and reporting costs.

“Third, reliance on motor fuel taxes levied by both the state and federal governments has created a long-term funding challenge at the same time that legacy infrastructure is in need of repair and population growth in states like Georgia necessitates expansion of road networks and transit options.”

Three regions out of 12 across the state passed the transportation special local option sales tax in 2012. The three regions are expected to haul in more than $1.1 billion in revenue over a 10-year period for their road projects.

“Everything has its shortfalls,” Kessler said. “But the regions that passed T-SPLOST are in pretty good shape; the ones that didn’t are hurting.”

Kessler said he thought the commissioners would forward their support of another T-SPLOST-style initiative. The T-SPLOST vote failed in six of the 10 counties comprising the Coastal Regional Commission, including Effingham.

Allen said under the way T-SPLOST revenues were to be disbursed among the counties, Effingham would have received more in funding than it paid in sales taxes.

The failure of T-SPLOST also means that those regions that did not pass it have their monetary match for state Department of Transportation projects go from 10 percent to 30 percent.

One of the proposals being floated is allowing neighboring counties, such as Effingham, Bryan and Chatham, to form partnerships and levy one-cent sales taxes amongst themselves, providing revenue to finance transportation improvements.

But Kessler isn’t ready to impose another sales tax, if other counties don’t follow suit.

“I don’t want to go up a penny on sales tax in Effingham if Chatham doesn’t,” he said.

Allen said the county could write in support of a regional tax in any resolution passed backing alternate transportation funding.

“We need to help our legislators and give them a little more voice,” Kessler said.