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Voting suggests trouble for transportation fixes

ATLANTA --- Georgians should plan on buying comfortable cars because they're likely to be spending more time in them based on last week's election results.

The rejection of two constitutional amendments present a real headache for those trying to unclog roads, build a rail network across the state and improve connections to rural areas angling for employers. One amendment was to fund a trauma-care network, and the other was to relax accounting rules on the Department of Transportation.

The failure of a $10 fee that would have been tacked onto the cost of vehicle tags suggests that voters aren't eager to loosen the grip on their wallets, even in the cause of lifesaving.

"Most people (concerned about transportation) have been made very nervous by the rejection of that constitutional amendment," said Benita Dodd, vice president of the Atlanta-based Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a market-oriented think tank.

A coalition of business and health groups chipped in for a campaign in support of the $10 fee in Amendment 2 on this year's ballot. The Yes2SaveLives campaign they launched featured frightening ads about the risk of a fatal accident and a paramedic lamenting the lives lost to long distances between trauma centers.

At the same time, there was a concerted effort by Tea Party groups to defeat it. They're not advocates of death, but they argued that existing taxes should be used to fund trauma care.

Opponents also argued that the modest fee could one day grow larger if politicians betray voters as they often do. To illustrate, they point to a decision by the State Toll and Roadway Authority to extend the 50-cent toll on Ga. Hwy. 400 in Atlanta for additional interchanges. When that toll was originally proposed to voters, it was supposed to expire when the bonds used to finance construction of the road were repaid. Even though voters had to approve the original toll, the SRATA board can extend it.

Peopl who regularly drive the highway agree interchanges are needed, but in an era of anger over government spending, the extension amounted to questionable politics.

"The people have a very bitter taste in their mouth about that," Dodd said. "They are wondering why they should believe anything from politicians."

The Tea Party argument about the trauma fee certainly flowed over to the other amendment that lost, which would have relaxed accounting procedures at DOT. Specifically, the amendment would have allowed multi-year contracts.

DOT says having multi-year contracts would allow it to start many more projects each year instead of having to commit 100 percent of each project's funds the day the first shovel of dirt is removed.

Ironically, another amendment allowing multi-year contracts passed. It would facilitate the installation of energy-saving fixtures in state buildings. A coalition of environmentalists and installation contractors funded a campaign for it.

There were no campaigns for the DOT's multi-year-contract amendment. There was no campaign against it either.

"It's kind of interesting that it was shot down without that," said Virginia Galloway, head of the Tea Party group Americans for Prosperity, Georgia. "It was kind of a distrust of the DOT. ... There was a kind of distrust of government in general this year."

Dodd and others see its defeat as a problem for transportation progress. "To not have it is going to handicap the state in the future," she said. "Worse than that, it doesn't bode well for the sales tax."

In two years, Georgians will vote on another constitutional amendment for transportation, one that would levy a one-cent tax on sales. Galloway said Friday that her group, and probably other facets of the Tea Party, hasn't made a decision about the 2012 transportation sales tax.

The tax is to be spent largely on projects determined by officials in each local region. It could go to roads, mass transit, passenger rail or even sidewalks and bike paths. Environmentalists are hopeful it will be the step needed to link the state's cities with trains.

It took three years for the General Assembly to put this tax on the ballot, and another two until voters get their say. If they remain in the mood from last week and reject it, a whole decade could be gone before an alternative is in functioning.

Dodd speculates that Gov.-elect Nathan Deal or a revitalized legislature may rework the sales-tax proposal before 2012, perhaps switching to a gas tax as a form of user fee or tolls on individual lanes.

At the very least, she says, the groups that lobbied so long for the sales tax must realize after elections that they're going to have to have a pretty big campaign to convince voters.

(Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service. He can be reached at walter.jones@ or (404) 589-8424.)

Web posted on Thursday, November 11, 2010

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