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Brother can you spare $8.4 billion?

Barnes road plan has one little hitch: no way to pay for it


A year ago in March, the legislation that could mortgage Georgia's future passed without so much as a hiccup through the General Assembly.

The bill, which was pushed by Gov. Roy Barnes, innocuously changed the name of the State Tollway Authority to the State Road and Tollway Authority.

More significantly, it gave the previously obscure agency the ability to issue bonds backed by federal transportation grants. Until then, the authority could only sell bonds backed by the quarters, nickels and dimes drivers tossed into tollbooths.

The magnitude of the change -- if not the stakes for Georgia taxpayers -- began to become clear in June, when Barnes held a press conference unveiling an $8.4 billion plan to expedite 22 years of road projects in about a decade. Like governors before him, Barnes said he'd found a way to catch Georgia up with the rest of the South by putting 98 percent of rural residents within 20 miles of a four-lane, "developmental" highway. He said the program also would tackle Atlanta's air pollution by adding more HOV lanes, bus service in the suburbs and a light rail line from Midtown to Cobb County.

And he announced that he was naming a longtime buddy from his native Cobb County, Jim Croy, as the executive director of the revamped authority. SRTA, the governor declared, would take advantage of a new kind of federal grant to help finance the projects.

Croy had spent most of his career in Cobb County government, the last seven as director of the county's transportation department. In 1999, his old friend and brand new governor tapped him as transportation director for the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

But his new job is a doozy. He's spent the last nine months trying to figure out how to pay for all the roads Barnes wants to build.

Like most things Barnes, the expedited road-building plan was heralded across the state right after it was announced. The governor described it as a bridge between the haves in Atlanta and the have-nots in rural Georgia.

Few voices questioned the details. Environmentalists criticized it as a scheme to finance the $2.4 billion Northern Arc highway across Atlanta's suburbs. Georgia Conservancy Policy Director Michael Halicki got his juices going when he started asking questions about the financing; no one would specifically explain how the construction would be funded.

"What raised red flags for us was that the more we looked into the financing, the more we realized what they don't know about financing the transportation projects," Halicki says. "SRTA hasn't been very forthcoming as to what their plans are."

Despite the program's sketchy financing, only the Northern Arc has been singled out for serious opposition -- and even that opposition was scattered among the usual suspects of anti-road environmentalists. After all, it's not as if Joe Six Pack would bitch about using billions of dollars in federal funds to speed up road construction.

But Joe Six Pack might get a bit more concerned if he learned all those roads could cost him -- at the pump, in tolls, even possibly in the form of income taxes.

As with most other things in life, when it comes to roads, you get what you pay for, and you have to pay for what you get. Sort of.

Actually, more than $900 million in the state Department of Transportation budget comes each year from the federal government. But, for decades, the nagging issue over at the state DOT has involved the revenues that Georgians provide directly through the state's unusually low gas tax.

Georgia motorists pay 7.5 cents in taxes for every gallon of gas. A 3 percent sales tax, which is added at the pump to the final price, goes toward gas-tax collections as well.

This year, that's expected to bring in $662.3 million -- money that will be spent on just about everything road-related, from plugging potholes to paying the guys who pick up the trash on the side of the road. It's also used to pay for road construction and to pay off bonds.

One of the limitations of the gas tax is that it can't be used for anything having to do with mass transit, bicycle lanes or other transportation alternatives. The Georgia Constitution requires the money to be spent on roads.

Road builders, DOT bureaucrats, legislators, even governors have tried for decades to raise the gas tax. Even some environmentalists supported a 1992 proposal to increase the tax under the condition that some of the new funds go toward transit. Voters rejected the constitutional amendment that would have allowed that.

But road advocates haven't stopped beating the drum for more gas-tax money. One of the most recent was Charles Floyd, a University of Georgia business professor who has long championed developmental highways. In 1998, Floyd compared the previous 13 years of gas tax revenues to the miles of road the state is responsible for maintaining.

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