YATESVILLE – Whether an initiative like one being considered by Georgia voters to approve a 1 percent sales tax to fund transportation projects in their region could work in Pennsylvania is not in question.
Whether voters in either state would approve such a dedicated tax increase is.
About a dozen members of a House Democratic Policy Committee held a hearing Thursday at Pittston Area High School to discuss funding and infrastructure deficiencies and to get information on the Georgia Transportation Act of 2010.
That plan, approved by the Georgia Legislature, divides the state into 12 special tax districts, allowing each district to approve a 1 percent sales tax for 10 years to be used for local transportation projects. If more money is generated than needed, the tax would end. The plan will go before voters July 31.
State Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Avoca, requested Thursday's committee hearing and is working to introduce a bill that would mirror the Georgia plan.
He said for far too long the state and federal governments have maintained crumbling and deteriorating roadways and bridges rather than rebuild them.
"We're spending money on a lot of Band-Aids but not really fixing the problem," said state Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, the chairman of the committee.
Carroll said he's seeking viable options to address needs at a local level since other statewide funding opportunities either don't seem to be gaining traction or wouldn't raise enough money to make a difference.
One way to raise money is to increase the state's gasoline tax, something few would stomach with gas at $4 a gallon.
"The gas tax increase is not wildly embraced, to put it mildly," Carroll noted.
But something needs to be done, he said.
George Roberts, executive director for Pennsylvania Department of Transportation District 4, which serves Pike, Wayne, Susquehanna, Wyoming, Lackawanna and Luzerne counties, testified that of the state's 2,063 bridges within the district, 429, or 21 percent, are structurally deficient.
He said many are more than 50 years old and "have exceeded their design life." Three bridges are closed to traffic because they're in such poor condition.
Carroll said that in District 4 alone, based on the most recent annual sales tax figures, the additional 1 percent tax could generate $40 million per year.
But the challenge of asking voters to increase their taxes poses a challenge, some of those who discussed the plan noted on Thursday.
"How do we fund transportation while facing the worst economic condition since the Great Depression?" asked Doug Callaway, executive director of the Georgia Transportation Alliance.
"In Georgia we came up with a different approach. We'll know on Aug. 1 whether we were successful," he said.
The way the proposal is sold to the voters could be the key in whether it passes or not, Callaway said.
"At the end of the day, it's not a sales tax we're talking about. It's more jobs, safer roads and local control," Callaway said.
His comment that chambers of commerce, construction companies and other firms that could benefit from added work were likely to spend more than $4 million to market the plan and educate the public on why they should vote in favor struck a chord with state Rep. Phyllis Mundy, D-Kingston.
"That seems like an awful lot of money to be spending on marketing," she said.
Callaway responded by noting "the investment is a drop in the bucket to the benefits this derives."
Economic development, modern roads, less traffic congestion because of ongoing road work and emergency bridge repairs and the potential to attract businesses by selling them on the willingness to invest in infrastructure were all reasons Callaway said voters should want to enact the tax.
"If you don't have the money to move forward, you're going to get run over by your competitors in other states," Callaway said.
If approved by the legislature and signed into law by the governor, here are the steps that would be needed to get a dedicated tax for transportation projects:
• First, a group of regional leaders would meet with District PennDOT officials to compile a list of projects to be funded by the additional 1 percent sales tax.
• Then the list would be whittled down to meet a budget based on the revenue such a tax would generate.
• Then the voters within the district would vote on approving the tax to be allocated to the projects on the list only. It would be a districtwide vote and would not need to gain approval in a majority of counties, just a majority of those casting votes from throughout the entire PennDOT district.