ATLANTA — City officials cautioned local lawmakers Thursday to be careful in considering a proposed plan to fund transportation out of fears the benefits for transit systems could be outweighed by the gas-tax revenue that would be given up.

At the same time, they asked the legislative representatives to support more generous tax credits for the rehabilitation of historic properties because the developer of a former Savannah Electric Power has promised to double the employment and size of the project if more credits become available.

The discussion came Thursday during the annual joint meeting of the Chatham legislative delegation and Savannah Council at the Capitol as part of Savannah Day in the General Assembly.

Reacting to a general outline of a transportation-funding bill given the day before, the initial response from the council was mixed.
Alderwoman Estella Shabazz welcomed the possibility of getting state funds for operations and capital purchases that state leaders mentioned.

“Having more money put toward our transit efforts would just take us to new heights, so I’m asking y’all to please work as hard as possible so that we can take our city to the next level,” she said.

A package of $100 million would be available for purchasing buses, trollies and other rolling stock or for laying track and constructing stations. Another $7.5 million would be available for daily operations. Both sums would be divided among the state’s 128 transit systems, although no allocation formula has been released.

The Chatham Area Transit is hoping to get at least $10 million of the available funds.

“We not only have one hand out, but two hands out,” joked CAT lobbyist Mike Vaquer.

But Alderwoman Mary Ellen Sprague warned that the proposal’s elimination of local sales taxes on gasoline purchases would force the city to give up more than $40 million in revenue, should the bill be fully implemented.

“That money is incredibly important for us,” she said. “When we hear about transportation we keep hearing, ‘We need money.’ Don’t look to us please. Half of our budget goes to public safety, so if you’re going to use it for transportation, we’re going to have to go someplace else to find our money.”

Mayor Edna Jackson said the city would reserve formal judgment on the proposal until the details have been reviewed.
One item the city is decidedly for is raising or complete elimination of a cap on a state tax credit to developers who rehabilitate historic structures. The maximum size project to fully take advantage of the 25-percent income-tax credit is $1.2 million, a figure that hasn’t been adjusted in years to reflect current market values.

The city’s top legislative priority is adjusting the cap, with a bill to be introduced by Rep. Ron Stephens, chairman of the county legislative delegation.

The most prominent beneficiary would be the 400 or so workers hired by the doubling of the power-plant project. Developer Richard Kessler originally intended to invest $100 million in updating the West River Street plant to become a cushy hotel with 300-400 jobs, but now he’s willing to pour $200 million and hire as many as 800 employees.

The city is also interested in having the state allow it to levy a sales tax to fund historic preservation. City lobbyist Jim Burgess asked Stephens to sponsor a bill to create the tax, but the Savannah Republican declined, saying the higher tax credit might be as beneficial and that trying to push both ideas could keep either from passing.

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