There are few things more important to any community than transportation, and the same goes for any business. No matter what size or location, our communities need safe, efficient connectivity for both residents and businesses. This is why improving Georgia’s transportation infrastructure has long been a focus of the Georgia Chamber and why it is our highest priority for the 2015 legislative session.
The problem is simple. While Georgia has continued to grow, our investments in transportation have not kept pace. A recent study concluded that the current level of funding is at least $1 billion less than the state actually needs to maintain roads, repair bridges and improve infrastructure. New roads or intersections, transit, rail or airport improvements will cost several billion more.
Georgia needs more funding, and the longer we wait the more we will need. House Transportation Chairman Jay Roberts has proposed legislation that will help to close our funding gap, strengthen our communities, and ensure that our state remains economically competitive.
The Transportation Funding Act will first and foremost create close to $1 billion in new funding that will benefit every region by shortening maintenance schedules and moving needed projects forward. The legislation maximizes existing revenue, and it protects those communities that passed the regional transportation sales tax two years ago. The main provision of the bill is a shift from a state sales tax to an excise tax on motor fuels that will ensure all money collected through transportation will be spent for transportation. It will also provide more predictability to the transportation budgeting process as excise taxes do not fluctuate with the price of oil or changes in the economy.
Second, it will reduce our reliance on the federal government. Today, Georgia depends on federal funding for more than 50 percent of our transportation budget compared to 27 percent in Florida and 25 percent in North Carolina. Why is this important? Because politics and bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., can and do hold up the reimbursement process, which is only becoming more unreliable. Adding $1 billion in new state funds would reduce our reliance by at least 15 percent — meaning that fewer projects would be impacted when federal funding is delayed.
Finally, it will allow us to remain economically competitive. While Georgia has an incredible network of transportation assets that have allowed us to effectively compete for jobs and investment, share our products with the world, and connect our communities — that network is in jeopardy if it is not maintained or expanded to accommodate growth. What happens if we do not make additional investments? It will take Georgians even longer to get to work or school, traffic will increase on our roads and highways, and our safety will be at risk as needed repairs are delayed.
Since the bill’s introduction there has been much debate, and a number of issues raised by county and city governments along with school boards have been addressed. Changes like these are part of the process for any legislation of this scope and there could be more to come, which is why as it moves through the process it is important to stay focused on what it will actually accomplish.
Transportation funding is not just an investment in roads, rails and ports, it is an investment in our future. Our needs will only grow larger and more expensive the longer we wait to address them. We are hopeful that the General Assembly will reach consensus on this critical issue before they adjourn and encourage all Georgians to express their support to our elected leaders as they make decisions that will impact us for decades to come.
Chris Clark is president and chief executive officer of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.