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 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Saturday, November 17, 2001

GAS TAX: Roads outrun state's money
Georgia's growth has left the ability to expand and maintain highways in the dust.
Christopher Quinn - Staff

There are potholes ahead for drivers and politicians.

Georgia's growth over the last three decades has outstripped its ability to pay for expanding and maintaining its 17,983-mile state highway system. (AVOC Note: Local roads too!!!)

The state's gas tax, the lowest in the nation at 7 1/2 cents per gallon plus a 3 percent sales tax, is a primary source of money for road and bridge building and maintenance. It hasn't been raised since 1971, a point of pride for many politicians.

Pride isn't paying the paving bills. (AVOC Note: Local Taxpayers are picking up tab!)

State Sen. Van Streat Jr. (D-Nicholls), the head of the Senate Transportation Committee, said drivers, particularly those in rural areas, are starting to feel the effects. Roads are not being maintained. Requested improvements can't be made.

"We are just running out of money," he said.

Tom Coleman, the DOT Commissioner, is trying to find more for road repaving. He did away with the state Department of Transportation's program to pave school parking lots, which was costing more than $ million a year. He is trying to save the DOT $3 million a year it spends picking up roadside trash by encouraging public involvement in cleaning and not littering.

A place Coleman has not looked for a few more pennies is in consumers' pockets. He supports Gov. Roy Barnes' stance against raising Georgia's fuel tax. (AVOC Note: The gas and truckers’ lobby has been effective in electing Governors and key legislators!)

With crumbling roads and Georgians paying the least in price per gallon in the United States, some are questioning whether this is a good time to consider a fuel-tax increase. Georgians are paying an average of $.01 per gallon at the pump, according to AAA Auto Club South. The national average is $.19.

Terry Lawler, the president of Georgians for Better Transportation, said Georgia should increase the gas tax or find other sources to pay for road improvements. GBT has over 100 members, including Delta Air Lines Inc., Georgia Power, MARTA and highway contractors.

Other organizations, such as the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, have called for more money in 2002 for improvements, without specifying where the money should come from.

Where the money comes from is always the tough issue, said Lawler, a former state legislator. Nobody wants to be pegged as the one who raises taxes.

"Politically, it's very difficult to do," he said. (AVOC Note: Takes backbone and leadership!)

Pressure to fix the problems will force politicians to deal with the question, he said.

"We know we need some money to do these things. The question is what is the best way to do it?" he asked.

Georgia's 7 1/2-cent tax per gallon raised $39.5 million for road and bridge improvements last year. Another $90 million came from an additional 3 percent sales tax and interests from road accounts.

If sales stayed the same, a 1-cent per gallon increase in the state tax would put an additional $8 million into the coffers.

A driver filling a 15-gallon gas tank once a week would pay about 60 cents more a month, less than the cost of a cup of coffee.

That would not fill all the potholes or repair all the bridges, but it would start.

Streat estimated that "a couple of hundred million" might be needed, this at a time when state government is cutting budgets.

Tax collections in most areas have dropped dramatically during the economic slump.

Motor fuel taxes are up $.8 million during the last four months. People are driving more, according to AAA, some believe because travelers were flying less after Sept. 11.

Barnes is implementing a program to sell bonds for road improvements, which will be paid back with future federal transportation income, but much of that money is earmarked for new projects, such as the controversial Northern Arc.

Streat said he didn't think the General Assembly was in a mood to discuss a tax increase unless people asked for it.

That doesn't seem likely. The Atlanta Regional Commission polled people last summer about supporting a gas-tax increase to build new roads. Only 28 percent of people said they would support the increase while 68 percent said they would not.

In the same poll, however, 43 percent of the people said they believed Georgia's gas tax was average when compared to other states throughout the nation.

Michael Meyer, a Georgia Tech professor whose job doesn't depend on votes or gubernatorial appointment, fielded a question about fuel tax increases at a seminar sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation in Atlanta three weeks ago.

He said he supported an increase and believed taxpayers would as well, if the situation is explained.

"If the case can be made [to taxpayers] . . . here's what you are going to get, I think that people will buy it." (AVOC Note: Leadership is needed at highest levels of State!)