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We Want Good Roads, but We’re Not Willing to Pay for Them

Ray LaHood, who was once the federal transportation secretary for President Barack Obama, had some blunt advice for a legislative study committee trying to figure out how the state can pay for repairing its highways and bridges. To keep promoting economic development, LaHood said, lawmakers will have to think the unthinkable: a tax increase to pay for improvements to the state’s infrastructure.

“If you’re going to continue to attract business, attract economic development, provide jobs for people that you represent, we have to deal with this infrastructure program,” LaHood said. “If America is going to be No. 1, we need an increase in the gas tax.” Without a motor fuel tax increase, “Georgia is going to get out-competed by other states,” LaHood warned.

Before he served in Obama’s cabinet, LaHood was a Republican member of Congress from Illinois for 14 years. In 1998, he voted with his GOP colleagues in the House—who included Nathan Deal—to impeach President Bill Clinton. LaHood is not some tax-and-spend liberal. He was simply reminding the legislators of a basic fact of governing: If you’re going to provide the services your constituents expect, you’re going to have to pay for them.  

That’s a point you haven’t heard much in the past decade or so. The legislative leadership is always willing to give a tax break to a lobbyist or a corporate executive, but when it comes to fixing roads or improving our schools, the answer is typically that taxes cannot be raised. Dozens of lawmakers have even taken a pledge vowing never to vote for a tax increase. That may not be such a good idea anymore, as LaHood suggested.

“We’re in a mess in America when it comes to transportation,” LaHood said. “Every transit system is 50 years old and crumbling. The interstates are crumbling. Bridges are falling down.”

Georgia currently ranks next to last among the states in the amount of money it spends per capita on its transportation infrastructure. “We’re a great state, we have a pretty good transportation system, but we’re not going to be able to sustain that without some future investment in transportation,” DOT Commissioner Keith Golden said at that legislative hearing.

My conservative friends would disagree with that. They have told me that if government would just stop taxing people and get out of the way, the forces of the free market would provide everything our society needs. It would be nice if that were true. 

I think back to the year 2003, when the General Assembly passed a law that paved the way for private companies to build highways and get their money back by collecting tolls from those who used the roads. The sponsors of that bill said it would unleash the pent-up innovation and resources of the free market so that badly needed highways would finally be constructed. It’s now been 11 years since that public-private highway bill was signed into law. Can you guess how many miles of highway have actually been built by private companies that stepped forward to unleash the forces of the free market? That number is zero.

Georgia’s duly elected state officials will have to decide how to raise tax revenues so that they can repair current roads and build the new roads that are needed. “Whatever the way that we come to fund transportation, it’s not going to be an easy vote,” said Rep. Jay Roberts (R-Ocilla), who co-chairs the study committee. “It never is, and those are tough votes you have to step up and make.” 

They are tough decisions, especially in a state where the mindset of so many politicians is that they will never vote to raise taxes at any time or for any reason. Who will be courageous enough to step up and address this?