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DOT: Road funds may hit dead-end
Federal money could run out this summer
0314roads 2
Gainesville-Hall County MPO Director Srikanth Yamala, left, and Senior Transportation Planner Sam Baker at the annual transportation forum at the University of North Georgia- Gainesville. - photo by NAT GURLEY

District Engineer Bayne Smith reeled off a list of area transportation projects — particularly bridge work — planned or underway in Hall County to an audience Thursday at the University of North Georgia-Gainesville.

The question is whether enough money will be there to pay for them all.

Smith’s updates at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s annual transportation forum followed remarks by his boss, Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Keith Golden, on what many have labeled as transportation’s version of a “fiscal cliff.”

“Starting in July, we will not be authorizing any federal aid projects — or very few, if any at all,” Golden said.

“There will be no design dollars authorized, no rights of way purchased for federal-aid projects and no construction dollars going out the door until Congress gives us some kind of certainty as to what the future holds.

“Construction days are going to slow down. And not buying right of way slows when you get to construction, so ... we all need to work together to push Washington to do something to find a solution.”

And federal dollars are crucial, making up about half of the DOT’s $2.2 billion budget, Golden said.

Congress is in the middle of debating reauthorizing the federal transportation spending law, which ends Sept. 30.

However, the Highway Trust Fund, the nation’s pool of transportation money, “is going to become insolvent around August,” Golden said. “To top it all off ... Congress has been borrowing money from the Bank of China to keep that trust fund up artificially.”

For the reauthorization, Congress is looking at ways to pour more money into the trust fund, which is supported by a fuel tax of 18.3 cents per gallon, and one of the options is raising that tax, the commissioner said.

“They’d have to raise it 10 cents per gallon immediately to get to where (the fund) needs to be, and that’s not a real popular solution.”

Golden said Congress “knows the problem, but they don’t have a way to fund that problem.”

Officials have long said many of the nation’s funding issues stem from the gap between increasing needs and declining revenues as people are driving more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Hall County’s growth, for example, has produced a need for several projects, including the Sardis Road connector in northwest Hall and widening Spout Springs Road in South Hall.

Golden noted as much in his comments.

“This is a growing region,” he said. “We’ve got to stay ahead of transportation (needs), not behind it.”

Smith talked about three major projects under construction in Hall: the widening of Ga. 347 between McEver Road and Interstate 985, the widening of Ga. 347 between I-985 and Ga. 211/Old Winder Highway and the replacement of Clarks Bridge on Ga. 284/Clarks Bridge Road at the Chattahoochee River.

But there are plenty of others that are in various stages, with one of Hall’s next major projects likely being the widening of U.S. 129/Athens Highway between Ga. 323/Gillsville Highway and the Pendergrass Bypass. The overall cost of that project, including right of way, is nearly $65 million.

One major project that lacks construction funding is the widening of U.S. 129/Cleveland Highway between Limestone Parkway and Nopone Road in North Hall. That project involves the replacement of two bridges.

“We do have construction and right-of-way money identified for the bridges,” DOT district spokeswoman Teri Pope said.

Road needs will only grow over the years, as Hall’s population continues to grow, officials have said.

Srikanth Yamala, director of the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization, Hall’s lead transportation planning agency, reaffirmed that at Thursday’s meeting, noting that, over the next 30 years, the county has an estimated shortfall of about $1.3 billion in funding for projects.

“Unlike Congress, we don’t have the flexibility to make up our own dollars,” he said.

The MPO is about to undertake an update of its 2040 Metropolitan Transportation Plan, outlining needed projects and their costs. That effort is set to be completed by August 2015.