ATLANTA — Georgia's transportation needs and how to pay for them emerged this week as the issues that will dominate the 2015 legislation session. Lawmakers convene Jan. 12 at the state Capitol.
The search for an estimated $1.5 billion new revenue — annually — is bound to create "some heartburn," said state Rep. Jay Roberts, a Republican selected to lead a study committee on transportation this summer.
"We're not looking for a two-year, three-year plan," Roberts said. "We're trying to come up with a solution for 20 years down the road so we're not back facing this same situation."
Georgia isn't the only state trying to figure out how to upgrade and maintain critical roads, bridges, rails and mass transit systems. The American Society of Civil Engineers is among the organizations warning of a dramatic gap between the country's infrastructure needs and the money available. The organization's latest estimate says it would take $3.6 trillion by 2020 to make needed upgrades.
Georgia lawmakers are feeling the pressure from the state's business community, including some of the state's biggest players in Delta Airlines and UPS.
UPS pointed to its own debacle in 2013, when more than 1 million express packages handled by the company failed to be delivered on time last Christmas Eve, according to tracking firm ShipMatrix.
The company has since made some improvements, including hiring more people.
"UPS Inc. took care of the issues we had," Frank Morris, UPS vice president of corporate public affairs, said at a legislative conference this week. "We're hoping that you, as Georgia Inc., will do the same next month."
An increase to the gas tax or sales tax, a new tax based on miles traveled, shifting existing funds to transportation and tolls all have been mentioned before the study committee. The committee plans to issue a report by the end of the month laying out the state's options. Gov. Nathan Deal told more than 700 transportation leaders gathered at a summit Tuesday that he's waiting for the committee's report.
Georgia Republicans have a healthy majority in both chambers, but Democrats expect to be needed if some Republicans balk at any new funding. State Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Democrat on the study committee, said lawmakers have to look at all modes of travel, including mass transit and rail.
"I think the only way for us to get there is to look across the aisle in a bipartisan way," Smyre said.
Deal told reporters this week that he wouldn't "get out in front" of the committee and said new funding is "the most difficult" part of the transportation issue. Deal, who did not campaign on the issue during his bid for a second term, did say taxes for miles traveled by electric cars and other options should be part of the conversation.
"It is time we looked at (transportation), and I look forward to talking with the committee and seeing what their report recommends," he said.