Transportation planners were hoping today would mark the end of short-term federal funding and Wednesday would start a period of sustained flowing of highway dollars to states and local projects.
Instead, Congress voted in August to extend the current transportation bill by just eight months, shorter than the term of the current funding bill.
It’s a better scenario than no action, which would have threatened the movement on any road projects, but officials are still in a bind.
Considering long-term projects “is harder, because you don’t exactly know what the future holds,” said Josh Waller, the DOT’S director of governmental affairs, on Monday. “You just have to make assumptions based off various things.
“And it’s very hard to really proceed to actually sign contracts if you’re unsure if the money is going to be there.”
The issue has local implications, too, as the Hall County area is in the midst of updating its long-range transportation plan.
The county has hired Pond & Co. of Norcross to help the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Hall area’s main transportation planning agency, in the effort.
Officials must develop a “financially constrained” plan by August 2015, meaning projected expenses must meet projected revenues.
And Hall County has a list of road improvement projects without complete funding in hand, including Spout Springs Road in South Hall and U.S. 129/Cleveland Highway in North Hall.
Richard Fangmann, Pond’s director of transportation planning, has said long-term federal funding “uncertainty ... is a challenge in determining the amount of funding likely to be available.”
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.
Sam I. Baker, the MPO’s senior transportation planner, said Monday that officials “have made some assumptions about future revenue and project costs and are presently seeking state and federal feedback.”
Much of the issue centers around the federal transportation spending law, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, which was approved in 2012 for a period ending Tuesday.
Congress passed a bill that allocated $10.8 billion to keep highway and transit programs going through May 31.
The U.S. government pays its share toward projects from the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which is supported by the 18.4-cent-per-gallon gas tax. The fund reached critically low levels over the summer.
One suggestion floated in Congress to boost the fund was to increase the gas tax, which U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, said he opposes.
Otherwise, “temporary solutions are the unfortunate result of very complex problems,” he said. “There’s not a clear-cut way forward at the moment.”
Waller said that even though the MAP-21 extension allows states to go forward on contracts, states won’t get reimbursed until appropriation bills are passed.
“You always have to be mindful ... because it may take a while for you to get reimbursed,” he said.
The long-term problem is that transportation expenses are far outpacing revenues, DOT Deputy Commissioner Todd Long said.
“Ultimately, Congress has to bring the expenditures in line with the revenue,” he said. “Every time they extend the (spending) bill, they’re borrowing more money from the general fund to make that happen.
“In any household, if you continue to borrow and spend more than you make, you’re going to be in trouble in the long term.”
And trying to figure out needed roadwork in the future “is almost impossible if you don’t have a stable revenue source,” Long said.