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Money’s the issue when it comes to Georgia’s roads

Officials must find new ways to fund transportation needs

POSTED: June 13, 2010 12:30 a.m.
/Times file photo

Traffic gridlock in North Georgia is a key issue in this year's electon campaign, the biggest roadblock being how to fix and expand the roads in a struggling economy.

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Todd Long just traded in his Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck for a Toyota Corolla.

Put another way, the former Flowery Branch resident went from 16 to 25 mpg.

"For me, that was a 40 percent increase in fuel efficiency. The miles I drive are about the same. So guess what? My donation to (Georgia's motor fuel tax) just reduced by 40 percent," said the Georgia Department of Transportation's planning director.

Now imagine that on a statewide scale, with motorists saying goodbye to gas guzzlers and the impact that's having on a major revenue source for Georgia's roads.

Declining is the word. Finding additional income is the mission — and the major challenge for the state's top government leaders.

"We can be in a situation where our revenue is less in 10 years from now than it is today," Long said. "Throw in inflation ... and it's a bad deal."

Despite the gloomy forecast, Long said he is encouraged by work that has been done looking at Georgia's future transportation needs and strategies.

"For the first time ever, we have developed what I call a business plan for transportation," said Long, former lead engineer in the DOT's Gainesville-based District 1. "That laid the framework for how we should guide and direct Georgia in the future."

The plan states that Georgia needs to increase investment in infrastructure to help boost the economy and ensure roads are safe and well maintained.

"We also need to be good stewards of the environment and have a limited footprint when we do go out and build roads and bridges," Long said.

Still, finding the money is the challenge.

"When the economy went up in the '90s and the (gross domestic product) was up high, we did do a whole lot of investment in infrastructure, so we were kind of coasting on past success," Long said. "And when you (do that), eventually it catches up to you."

Georgia's gas tax hasn't been changed since the 1970s and proceeds are limited to roads and bridges.
"We don't have this incredible flexibility to go out and fund transit (projects)," Long said.

State officials are hoping the Transportation Investment Act of 2010 will serve as the cash cow for the transportation plan.

The legislation carves up Georgia into 12 regions and asks voters to decide during the 2012 statewide primary whether to go up a penny on the sales tax to pay for roads, bridges and rail projects in that part of the state.

Only those regions that approve the sales tax increase would have the money to spend.

A document prepared by the Gainesville-Hall County Metropolitan Planning Organization shows the tax could generate some $90 million in the 13-county Georgia Mountains Regional Commission, including some $25 million in Hall County.

Each district must form a regional transportation roundtable, comprising two representatives from each county within the district, with the first meeting to take place after Nov. 15.

The group must reach consensus on a project list by October 2011.

The measure would pass in 2012 with a majority vote districtwide, meaning that larger counties such as Hall and Forsyth could hold sway on the vote.

Srikanth Yamala, transportation planning manager for the Gainesville-Hall County Metropolitan Planning Organization, has been talking up the plan a lot lately, including last week before the MPO's policy committee and the Hall County Board of Commissioners.

"All (our) projects are needed right now," he said. "And we are at a gridlock when it comes to funding. Anything we can do to find additional funding will definitely be the primary, primary achievement."

Hall County alone has about $170 million in needed improvements, including a new interchange between Flowery Branch and Oakwood and widening to four lanes that daily logjam known as Spout Springs Road.

Some members of the MPO policy committee have voiced concerns about the new law, including worry over what Flowery Branch City Manager Bill Andrew called "SPLOST fatigue," or voters routinely considering 1-cent tax programs for education and other needs.

Steve Gooch, the DOT board's District 1 representative, said he believes the transportation tax is "probably the best alternative (the state legislature) has come up with so far."

Finding mutual agreement among counties and cities will be challenging, "but hopefully it will come out to good in the end," Gooch said.

At one time, motorists could hardly travel in Hall County without running into orange barrels.

Over the past decade, projects have included widenings on Dawsonville and Winder highways, and, most recently, the $75 million reconstruction of Interstate 985 in Oakwood.

The only major project under way at the moment is construction of the four-lane Thurmon Tanner Parkway between Plainview and Mundy Mill roads in Oakwood.

The state is buying right of way to widen Friendship Road between Interstate 985 and Ga. 211/Old Winder Highway in South Hall.

"I think a lot of hope has been put in this transportation bill ... to try to get regional support for funding, but I still think the state has to have strong leadership to truly fund our needs statewide," Oakwood City Manager Stan Brown said.

"Rail is something we need to be pushing. Florida and North Carolina brought in a lot of (federal) stimulus money for commuter rail because they were prepared - they had plans in place," Brown said.

As far as gas taxes go, they "need to be at a level that those who are driving on the roads contribute toward the costs," he added. "... If that means more motor fuel tax, that's what it needs to be."

Also, Georgia needs to distribute the revenue fairly.

"We are contributing based on the motor fuel taxes that are going in. Our residents and the people using our infrastructure are contributing. Give us our money back in that proportion," he said.

"I want to see the day when we don't have to put our hat in our hand and make a grant request."



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