ATLANTA — Georgians voting in the 2012 presidential primary will be able to decide whether to increase the sales tax by one penny to pay for transportation projects, under a deal announced Thursday by Gov. Sonny Perdue and legislative leaders.
Under the plan — which must still be approved by the Legislature — regions that approve the tax increase would have money to spend on local road and infrastructure projects. Others could reject the increase and would not see any additional funding.
The proposal would also give MARTA flexibility to tap millions of dollars in its reserve fund to stay afloat. Atlanta's public transit system is staggering under a huge funding shortfall.
Perdue made the announcement Thursday with fellow Republicans, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston. Lawmakers have been tantalizingly close to a deal on transportation for the past few years but have come up short in the final hours of the legislative session.
The logjam broke this year after Perdue finally threw his support behind the regional sales tax proposal. He explained that after pushing through a bill to overhaul the state Department of Transportation's troubled bureaucracy he now has confidence any additional money would be spent wisely.
Democrats have pushed for a vote this year — rather than 2012 — saying the cash is needed immediately to improve the state's ailing roads, rails and airports.
But Perdue said the economy needs to improve for the plan to stand a chance of winning voter approval.
"I do believe that our economy will be well on the way of recovering at that time," Perdue said.
Perdue said it would also give officials another two years to make their case to voters.
The governor's budget plan also calls for an additional $300 million in bonds for transportation projects that could begin flowing sooner, he said.
Metro Atlanta suffers from some of the worst commute times in the nation and business leaders have complained that the region's notorious gridlock has made it difficult to recruit and keep companies.
Spending on transportation in Georgia has lagged well behind the state's explosive population growth. Georgia spends the second lowest per capita in the country on transportation, ahead of only Tennessee.
Road projects in Georgia are funded mostly with money from the state's gasoline tax. But those revenues have tumbled due to the recession.
The MARTA plan would help out the Atlanta's struggling mass transit system by easing spending restrictions for three years. MARTA Chief Executive Officer Beverly Scott said it was not a cure all for the funding ills. The proposal would give MARTA access to about $39 million now earmarked for capital improvements. But MARTA is facing a steep $120 million shortfall.
"This is a very positive step forward but it is not a panacea," Scott said Thursday.
While Perdue expressed confidence in the state Department of Transportation on Thursday, its board remains something of a problem child. Just weeks ago Perdue blasted the board for using an accounting method he said violated the law.
Ralston said Thursday that House Republicans would put forward a proposal next week to shorten the terms of state transportation board members. The board members currently serve five-year terms. He wants them to serve two-year terms or one five-year term.
"You've got a board over there that's defying the law and continuing to resist change, continuing to resist our efforts to bring a planning component over there. The majority seems to be totally resistant to that," Ralston told reporters after a speech to the Atlanta Press Club.
The DOT board oversees a budget of roughly $2 billion.
DOT board member David Doss said Thursday that "some of the criticism is misdirected."
"Since 1962, Gov. Carl Sanders moved the highway department out of the governors' office and created an independent constitutionally-created board and I think that model has served us well for almost 50 years," Doss said.
Doss said any effort to diminish the board's independence "is a dangerous path to go down."
Members of the DOT board are elected by state legislators to represent congressional districts.
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