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Senate passes first transportation measures

ATLANTA - The Senate easily approved two transportation resolutions Monday, a smooth opening to what could become a protracted debate over how to pay for a host of highway and transit needs.

One of the resolutions, which passed 40-7, urges Congress to leave the collection of gasoline taxes to the state. The other, which senators approved unanimously, encourages the Georgia Department of Transportation to develop a statewide transportation plan.

The two resolutions, which now move to the House, represent the low-hanging fruit from a set of recommendations issued two weeks ago by a legislative study committee on transportation funding.

The heavier lifting will come later when lawmakers decide whether an infusion of new revenue for road and transit projects should be raised by region or statewide.

Saddled with ever-worsening traffic gridlock in metro Atlanta, legislative leaders have made transportation a top priority for this year's General Assembly session.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle unveiled Senate legislation last week to allow individual counties to propose a new 1-cent sales tax for transportation improvements.

A day later, House Transportation Committee Chairman Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, introduced a bill calling for a statewide 1-cent sales tax dedicated to transportation.

On Monday, Sen. Chip Pearson, R-Dawsonville, told his Senate colleagues the urging resolution to Congress is aimed at allowing Georgia to keep its federal gas tax money instead of sending it to Washington for distribution.

Historically, Georgia has been a "donor state," sending more gasoline tax revenue to the federal government than the state receives. Currently, the state only gets back 90 cents per $1 in federal gas taxes.

"We're not getting a fair shake from the federal government," Pearson said.

The resolution calling for a statewide transportation plan suggests that such a strategy should do away with planning based on political expediency and instead promote highway and transit projects that ease traffic congestion and improve public safety.

It appears that the upcoming debate over how to pay for those improvements will break down much as it did last year, with the Senate supporting a regional approach and the House advocating a statewide solution.

Cagle said last week that tax measures based on individual counties or regions make more sense because transportation needs aren't the same across Georgia.

"Transportation issues mean different things to different parts of our state," he said. "Local control and flexibility play an important role in solving both our congestion problems in metro Atlanta and our transportation infrastructure needs throughout Georgia."

The Senate version would set aside 10 percent of any revenue raised by a county or regional transportation sales tax for mass transit projects. The House measure carries no such guarantee.

Both tax proposals would be subject to voter approval.