Substantive changes to the transportation tax bill passed by the Georgia General Assembly might not happen in the 40-day legislative session starting Monday.
“We’re not going to have reliable data for what House Bill 170 does until we have at least a year of data in hand,” House Transportation Committee Chairman Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, told a Gainesville audience Thursday.
The bill, which went into effect July 1, eliminated the state fuel sales tax at the gas pump and enacted a 26-cent excise tax. It also created a $200 fee on electric vehicles and a $5 per night fee on hotel and motel stays.
The tax is expected to generate $757 million more in fiscal 2015-16 in transportation funding and $820 million in fiscal 2016-17, officials have said.
The $5 fee particularly spurred several questions at a statewide transportation forum at the Gainesville Civic Center.
“There’s still some room for discussion and debate on the issue,” Coomer said. “We don’t claim to get everything right all the time … and we’re certainly willing to go back and review things that need to be fixed.
“But I’ll say this too: We’re not going to change portions of this bill based on a sky-is-falling mentality. We’re going to make changes that are reasonable, that are data-driven, fact-based and logical. And we (must) have the data in place to do that.”
If lawmakers find “problems that the bill creates unintentionally, we’re going to find solutions,” Coomer said.
“If we find that the $5 fee is causing hotel occupancy rates to go down or we’re losing conventions over that fee, we’re certainly going to find ways to fix that problem.”
State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said later by phone he believes lingering concerns from the law “are going to have to be fully vetted, but I don’t look for any change in that transportation legislation this term.”
He said he’s not sure what changes would be made even beyond this session.
“We’ve already bitten the bullet on that thing,” Miller said. “Why scrape the scab off? That’s all we would be doing by bringing it back up.”
Coomer said he does expect transit issues to be a key transportation issue during the legislature.
“You’re going to hear a lot of discussion … about what transit means, what transit looks like, what it isn’t across this state,” he said.
Coomer also expects lawmakers to talk a lot about how “transportation policy should shift with regard to transit funding and transit policy across the state.”
Transit has been a big topic in Hall County lately, with public-private efforts underway to start direct bus connections between Hall and downtown Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Officials involved with the project envision setting up stations at the Exit 17 park-and-ride lot off Interstate 985 in South Hall and the Hall County Farmers Market off Jesse Jewell Parkway at I-985 near Gainesville.
Also, increasing demand in unserved areas has prompted Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center, to appeal to area officials to “rethink how we do local funding for transit” and with some urgency, as federal dollars that could be tapped are slipping away.
“In just over a decade, Gainesville-Hall County has forfeited over $6 million dollars in federal funds for urban transit services,” she has said.
The transit service’s 2015 federal allocation is $1.5 million, but “we are only going to ask for half of that … because we don’t have a local match to bring the other half,” Moss said.