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Georgia lawmakers working on transportation funding

GAINESVILLE — After hearing largely from constituents for the past few months, a state legislative committee now is ready to huddle over ways Georgia could boost

 transportation spending.

“We haven’t had a whole lot of discussion on it outside the committee, so a lot of members are anxious to see what we can come up with,” said state Sen. Steve Gooch, a Dahlonega Republican whose 51stDistrict includes north Forsyth.

Gooch and state Rep. Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, serve as chairmen of the Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding.

A House resolution created the committee in 2014, charging the body with identifying new sources and methods of transportation funding.

State and federal governments both have struggled with how to pump more money into roads. A 2012 sales tax referendum adding a 1 percent tax for transportation failed in nine of 12 regions in Georgia, including Hall and the rest of the Georgia mountain counties.

And Congress hasn’t passed any long-term transportation funding plans. The current plan is an extension to May 31 of a spending law that ended Sept. 30.

Meanwhile, “costs are skyrocketing if you look at what it costs to build an interstate highway,” Gooch said. “Our secondary roads, bridges and back roads are falling apart as well, so we have a real problem.”

The state panel has been meeting since August and just wrapped up final public meetings last week in Blue Ridge and Rome.

The resolution called for the group to make recommendations to the legislature by Nov. 30, but “we extended that 30 days so we could come up with a more comprehensive report,” Gooch said.

That work should be completed by the end of December, or before the General Assembly convenes Jan. 12.

“We’re going to propose about six or eight different ideas that we heard and let (the legislature) start negotiating and deliberating on what’s best for Georgia’s future,” Gooch said.

There are several issues at stake, including that a portion of sales tax on diesel fuel goes to other states and whether “to redo the motor fuel tax” in some way, he said.

“Do we increase the gas tax or do we scrap that system and start an entirely new system based on the amount of traveling [people] do? Or do we do something based on sales tax on gasoline? I don’t know.”

“So, there’s still a lot of balls in the air,” Gooch said.

The gas tax is a particularly touchy issue, as it serves as the primary revenue source for the federal Highway Trust Fund. Federal dollars are a huge contributor to road and bridge projects nationwide, and the 18-cent federal gas tax has stayed steady for a couple of decades.

“Based on federal government mandates, in the next 20 years, vehicles that we drive today are going to almost double in fuel efficiency, and what that will essentially do is cut our revenues in half,” Gooch said.

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told the committee in August he believes the U.S. needs to raise the gas tax by at least 10 cents to fix America’s infrastructure woes.

“I know this is a hard one,” he added.

Gooch said lawmakers have “some work to do to come up with solution.”

“I don’t know that anybody has the perfect fix,” he said. “It may take some time to get it where we need it, maybe taking a couple of years to phase in [measures]. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what the appetite is of the General Assembly.”

The thing is, Gooch said, “there’s not a silver bullet out there that says ‘Here’s the answer.’ Other states have been through this the last four or five years and they’re finding the same result — that there is no easy solution out there.”