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Georgia keeping eye on highway funding debate

POSTED: January 16, 2014 12:28 a.m.

A week after Congress passed a transportation bill in July 2012, the Georgia Department of Transportation’s deputy commissioner told a Hall County audience he worried about future federal funding when the law expired Sept. 30, 2014.

Now that the date is on the horizon, Todd Long is no less concerned.

“The way the funding structure is arranged right now, fiscal 2015 (starting Oct. 1) is a big uncertainty,” he said Wednesday.

“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, Long said.

“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.”

Congress has started debating the future of the Highway Trust Fund, which is largely supported by an 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax and distributes money to states based on a formula. Road projects are frequently financed by federal, state and, in some cases, local money.

The fund has been teetering on the edge of insolvency for years. Officials have long said gas tax revenues are declining based on people driving fewer miles as well as more fuel-efficient vehicles.

For the current law, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, the government pulled money from its general fund, “allowing us to stay at this artificial level,” Long has said.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has said he sees signs the nation may finally be ready to tackle its “infrastructure deficit.”

Some members of Congress are beginning to talk about specific proposals to shore up the trust fund, Foxx said.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., recently introduced legislation to increase the federal 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax by 15 cents over the next three years, and then index it for inflation. It would raise about $170 billion over the next decade. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has proposed eliminating the per-gallon gas tax and replacing it with a federal sales tax based on a percentage of the price of the gas sold.

The White House has been pushing a plan to overhaul corporate taxes, using billions of dollars in savings to shore up infrastructure investment for at least the next several years.

The plan initially got a cool reception from congressional Republicans, but Foxx said he is encouraged that key committee chairmen in the House and Senate and other lawmakers have expressed interest in the concept.

Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.

The DOT is tracking the issue through media reports and other sources.

“We get all kinds of weekly posts from different national magazines and such, so we get updated pretty regularly,” Long said. “You’ve got a House and Senate that probably aren’t willing to raise taxes.”

The issue has huge implications for Hall County, which has a bevy of road projects sitting on the books.

And the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization, which oversees area transportation planning, is about to embark on an update of its 2040 Metropolitan Transportation Plan.

Federal law requires that such a plan “must be financially constrained, which means that the estimated cost for all ... transportation improvements can not exceed the amount of reasonably expected revenues projected from identified federal, state, and local funding sources,” states the 2040 plan.

Federal and state dollars make up $1.7 billion in revenues in the plan.

“I think there is no disagreement at the national level about the need to maintain and improve highways, bridges and transit,” said Srikanth Yamala, the MPO’s director.

“The challenge the reauthorization faces is on how to pay for it. I am hopeful that Congress will reauthorize long-term legislation unlike the previous one, which only covered two years. The lack of a timely extension could disrupt existing projects and hurt local economies.”

The Georgia Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers issued a report Monday — the start of the 2014 General Assembly — that issued grades for a wide array of infrastructure in the state.

Its overall grade was a C, with roads and bridges getting a C-minus.

State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, wasn’t surprised.

“We have not invested in infrastructure that is commensurate with the growth of the state,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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