Two years ago, the concept of expanding fixed rail to move more commuters through metro Atlanta was declared dead – staked through the heart by the defeat a sales tax referendum.
One month ago, Democrats in Georgia, swamped again by a red wave, were considered an irrelevant sideshow in a GOP-dominated state Capitol.
Neither condition is true today. January and the simple arithmetic of the General Assembly are largely responsible.
Next month, Republican state lawmakers are likely to take up the effort to find as much as $1.5 billion in new money, to be spent annually, to address Georgia’s woefully underfunded and overheated system of roads and bridges.
It is not a wholly voluntary enterprise. With the Great Recession at its back, the state’s business community has exerted tremendous pressure on Republicans to prove that, after 12 years in power, they are capable of making the tough choices that governance requires. In other words, raising taxes when the situation demands.
A hike in the state’s gas tax could be placed on the table early next year. Or an increase in the state sales tax.
Either way, despite the fact that they have a two-thirds majority in the Senate, and are one seat shy of a super-majority in the House, Republicans will need help. With the tea party still a dominant faction in GOP ranks, passage of any tax hike would fall on the backs of Democrats – and a minority fraction of Republicans.
State officials have engaged in a bit of message-testing to see if they can prevent a stampede of hardcore Republicans away from the issue. Keith Golden, the commissioner of the state Department of Transportation, attempted a states’ rights argument before a gathering of state lawmakers in Athens this week.
The federal highway trust fund, fueled with a federal gas tax, is the DOT’s biggest source of revenue for road-building. And it’s drying up. “We are much too dependent in Georgia on the federal government and that gas tax program,” Golden said.
But GOP hesitancy was personified this week by Gov. Nathan Deal, who on Tuesday told a large group of transportation experts – also meeting in Athens — that he preferred to allow a House-Senate committee make the first move later this month. “I would not get in front of them, or anticipate what their report is going to say. I’m going to let them surprise us all at the appropriate time,” the governor said.
Deal’s partner in the 2012 TSPLOST campaign, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, has also signaled he won’t be walking point in the coming fight. Look for longtime state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, in conjunction with House and Senate minority leaders Stacey Abrams of Atlanta and Steve Henson of Tucker, respectively, to serve as go-between.
Clout comes to those who are lucky enough to be needed. In Athens, among state lawmakers and those transportation aficionados, talk centered around the cost of Democratic cooperation.
Without exception, Democrats with whom we consulted declared their base sticker price – with an add-on here or there – to be state support for commuter rail. The level and target of such funding to be determined.
Consummation of that bargain would represent a critical shift in Georgia’s transportation strategy. MARTA’s rail system may be 35 years old, but the transit system has yet to receive its first dime in state funding.
But if the state of Georgia should shift its position on commuter rail, Democratic demands wouldn’t be the only driver. More and more Republicans are recognizing that transit and Georgia’s economic ambition to become a technology hub are linked.
At that transportation meeting in Athens, Governor Deal was the keynote speaker. He was followed by Casey Cagle. Like Deal, the Republican lieutenant governor wouldn’t endorse – not outright – a tax increase for transportation.
But Cagle raised eyebrows when he said this: “We cannot avoid the issue of transit….I believe very strongly that we have an infrastructure that exists with MARTA that can be capitalized on,” the lieutenant governor said.
What the transit agency lacks is “a sustainable financial model,” Cagle said.
In the audience was Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, a state senator who is a former member of the state DOT board and CEO of the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce. Beach is also pushing to become the next chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, which could play a critical role in next year’s debate.
Beach pronounced himself “very happy” with the lieutenant governor’s remarks. “Look at my district. You’ve got 900 technology companies up the [Ga.] 400 corridor,” he said. “These young kids – they don’t want to have a car.
“I was at Google headquarters about four months ago. The executives said they surveyed [employees] under the age of 30 – about 15,000 kids,” Beach said. “One hundred percent of them don’t own a land line. All they have is their mobile phone. Eighty percent said they had no desire to own a home. Fifty percent of them don’t own a car.”
Automobiles simply are not on many a millennial’s list of things they want to pay for, Beach said.
And so, come January, we could have a curious permutation of that French proverb: The more things stay the same, the more they change.