ATLANTA | Most motorists can see that the grass along Georgia’s highways stays pretty shaggy and rush-hour congestion is getting worse. Rough pavement and potholes are visible enough, too.


So when state transportation officials and business groups say there is a need for road improvements, it isn’t hard to be convincing. And that’s even with the less obvious needs like the 16 percent of interstates falling below state maintenance standards or the 11 percent of state-owned bridges due for major rehabilitation.

The Georgia Department of Transportation only has enough money to resurface 2 percent of roads per year.

“If you have to wait 50 years to see your road resurfaced, you’re not going to be too happy,” Transportation Commissioner Keith Golden said Tuesday to a committee of legislators and citizens chosen to study the issue of road funding.

DOT gets most of its money from taxes on gasoline. But better fuel efficiency means less in taxes for each mile driven.


Road-construction advocates offer a handful of ideas for boosting DOT’s finances.

One is simply to increase the gas tax. No one has offered a specific amount publicly yet. But Georgia’s tax rate is below the national average, and the typical driver pays $85 annually toward state road building and maintenance, which is much lower than the general perception, Golden said.

The idea is unlikely to fly because a large number of legislators got elected on a pledge against any tax increase.

Another idea is to change the basis of the tax from the fuel purchased to the actual miles driven. A device in each vehicle would record the miles and tally the cost for each driver to pay while filling up. However, many conservatives worry about compromising motorists’ privacy.

A third idea is to remove a major expense from DOT by having the state’s general budget pay off bonds issued for road building. After all, no other state agency has to use part of its operating funds for debt service.

“It’s not painless,” said Alan Essig, director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a think tank oriented toward increased social spending. “If you pick up $100 million or whatever it is and don’t raise revenue, that is a huge hole in the [general] budget.”

DOT only got stuck with the bill for its bonds because a previous governor wanted to tap what were then flush gas-tax revenues to fund bonds for other agencies without a general tax increase, notes Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon.

Another side issue prevented DOT from the use of “the fourth penny” of gas tax when the state sales tax rose from 3 percent to 4 percent, he said. The Democrats who served as House speaker and governor then were peeved at the transportation commissioner at the time and wanted to serve up some punishment, according to Lucas, one of the longest-serving members of the General Assembly.

Dedicating the fourth penny of gas tax to transportation instead of it going into the state’s general budget fund is another idea being floated by road-building advocates. But like the debt-service idea, it has its critics.

Sen. Horacena Tate, D-Atlanta, is one of them. A member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, she said Friday that she’s ready to stand in the way of the proposal because of what it would do to the rest of the general budget, such as education and health care.

“Why do we want to take money out of the general fund? We’ve already seen decreases as a result of the recent recession,” she said.

The fifth idea is to shift to greater use of tolls, using them to repay private developers that invest construction funds up front in expectation of a long-term profit. One of its strongest supporters is Benita Dodd, vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a think tank that prefers using business solutions to government problems.

“People have no trouble driving in other states on tolled roads like Florida,” she said. “Just because we don’t have that mind-set doesn’t mean that we can’t have an education process.”

As Dodd suggested, putting tolls on roads, especially on existing roads, is unpopular with many drivers. Attempts to use a toll to repay a private company’s improvements to Georgia 316 between Athens and Atlanta met firm resistance at any amount close to what engineers calculated as the necessary rate.

The defeat two years ago in most of the state of the vote known as T-SPLOST — for transportation special-purpose, local-option sales tax — has hung like a millstone around the necks of any revenue proposal since. Original proponents of T-SPLOST are holding out hope that new versions could be voted on by regions.

A special committee of the House and Senate is holding a series of meetings across the state this summer to get public input before recommending one or more of these proposals to the legislature.

“We have an open mic, and we want to hear from people,” said Co-Chairman Rep. Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla.