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Short-term funding hampers long-term planning for Hall County roads

POSTED: August 3, 2014 12:14 a.m.

“How do we plan for 25 years into the future when we don’t even know what will happen to transportation funding in summer of 2015?” said Sam I. Baker, senior transportation planner of the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Hall area’s main transportation planning agency,

The county has hired Pond & Co. of Norcross to help develop a long-range transportation plan for the Hall area.

Officials must develop a “financially constrained” plan by August 2015, meaning projected expenses must meet projected revenues. Pond and county officials are holding community meetings, including one set for Thursday at the Hall County Government Center, and conducting surveys to help gauge public concerns.

Long-term federal funding “uncertainty ... is a challenge in determining the amount of funding likely to be available,” said Richard Fangmann, Pond’s director of transportation planning.

The firm is talking with the Georgia Department of Transportation and the MPO “to determine appropriate assumptions regarding anticipated growth or reduction in funding levels ... in the plan,” he said.

“Funding levels could be greater or less than we will assume in developing the plan,” Fangmann said. “Therefore, delivery of the projects indicated in the financially constrained plan may be sooner or later based on level of funding.”

That’s the case with any plan “but may be greater here due to (the funding) uncertainty,” he added.

The issue centers around the federal transportation spending law, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, ending Sept. 30.

The key revenue source is the Federal Highway Trust Fund — supported by the 18.4-cent-per-gallon gas tax — and it reached critically low levels last week, with states warned they might see a 28 percent reduction in reimbursements starting Aug. 1 and lasting through Sept. 30.

Without a federal authorization law in place by Oct. 1, “we couldn’t proceed on anything,” said Josh Waller, the DOT’S director of governmental affairs.

Congress has looked at ways to pour money into the trust fund, at least temporarily. A House bill that allocated $10.8 bill to keep highway and transit programs going through the end of May 2015 was passed 81-13 in the Senate and was sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.

In the past, the MPO, “as well as many others, assumed an increase in federal funding that was similar to anticipated inflation,” Fangmann said.

“This approach (had) worked well. However, in recent years, improved fuel economy and some reduction in miles traveled per vehicle has led to less money being collected overall, straining the federal trust fund.”

One week after Congress passed the current spending bill in July 2012, Georgia DOT Deputy Commissioner Todd Long told a Hall County audience he worried about future federal funding when the law expired.

“I certainly believe that, in future years, without an infusion of cash,” Georgia’s share of federal dollars could drop as much as 30 percent, he said in January.

“To fund a bill to keep us at the level we’re at right now, (lawmakers are) going to have to either borrow money or raise the gas tax.”

Long and Waller continued last week to closely eye events in Washington, especially as Congress worked to iron out final funding details.

One big concern, they said, has been the term of a reauthorization bill.

A longer-term bill “allows us to do the long-term planning that’s absolutely critical,” Waller said. “With the shorter-term extensions ... it’s very difficult to proceed efficiently. It’s very hard to put plans in place.

“We can’t just rip something off the shelf or throw a project together.”

Long agreed. “All states around the country will be hesitant to move very far forward on anything of significance without a longer-term bill.”

Srikanth Yamala, the MPO’s director, said that “unless and until Congress works to reform revenue streams to keep up with the needs, it will be a challenge for everyone, especially local governments.”

The DOT “has already been forced to scale back its letting of road projects and several road projects in Hall County rely heavily on federal dollars. The lack of continued and consistent funding is creating a vacuum and, as a result, (right-of-way) and construction costs are rising.”

While the funding debate rages, officials are reaching to the public for input on future projects.

The MPO is asking residents to take a survey as part of the efforts to update the region’s long-range transportation plan. The survey can be found at surveymonkey.com/s/GHMPOMTPsurvey1.
And the DOT has started a survey on its website, dot.ga.gov, seeking people’s views on transportation needs. The survey will be online until Sept. 30.

“I want to be able to provide this input ... to our leaders in Congress and the General Assembly,” Commissioner Keith Golden said.



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