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Help is arriving soon to upgrade areas roads, bridges
Georgia's year-old transportation tax ready to fund construction projects
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Replacing broken concrete slabs and cleaning roadside sound barriers may not sound glamorous but they’re the kinds of projects that have been a key result of the Transportation Funding Act, which marked its first anniversary Friday.

Because of the new law, “we can now leverage our federal dollars differently and a little more strategically,” said DOT Commissioner Russell McMurry, who reflected on the tax’s anniversary during an interview last week.

Motorists may want immediate traffic relief through added lanes, and the state has been able to prioritize bigger projects, such as widenings and new construction of roads and bridges.

“So, to the maximum extent, we are moving federal dollars to (maintenance) projects because there’s a much simpler environmental process there,” said McMurry, a Hall County resident.

“And then we can move our state money to some of the harder projects,” such as the long-awaited widening of Spout Springs Road in South Hall.

Spout Springs may move into right of way acquisition later this year, with construction likely still a few years off.

But there are a few maintenance projects springing out of the new tax that, mixed with federal dollars, will benefit Hall over the next year: replacing broken concrete slabs on Interstate 985, striping and new raised pavement markers on I-985 and ramps, and sound wall repair and cleaning on Ga. 53 Connector.

Before 2015, state lawmakers struggled to find ways to shore up transportation funding for Georgia — a need that became more urgent as the state’s population grew, fuel tax revenue dwindled and long-term federal funding didn’t seem certain.

“If we hadn’t changed from the model we were using, we would have really been in trouble,” said state Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

He especially cited the price of gas plummeting in early 2015 as a disturbing trend for a tax system that had depended on the price per gallon at the pump..

“That would have eliminated another $200 or $300 million in revenue, and that would have about shut down every road project in Georgia,” Gooch said.

Lawmakers settled on the Transportation Funding Act, which basically eliminated the state fuel sales tax and enacted a 26-cent excise tax.

“The increased revenue equates to a roughly $770 million increase in 2016 and an $840 million increase in 2017 over the previous tax structure,” DOT spokeswoman Annalysce Baker said. “Revenue is estimated to continue to grow each year and eventually increase to $1 billion.”

Revenue estimates show the DOT’s total 2016 funding at $1.7 billion in 2016 and $1.8 billion in 2017.

Statewide, a big emphasis in the first year has been fast-forwarding maintenance contracts.

It’s been “anything from repairing bridge joints to mowing grass, striping and working on traffic signals,” he said.

“These deferred maintenance activities need to be done, and we’re doing them with small business contractors,” McMurry said. “And it creates a new job sector where we still need contractors for, quite frankly, across the state.”

At the same time, construction projects — some that had been put off because of a lack of funding — are being awarded to the tune of $100 million or more per month.

In one month, McMurry noted, the state awarded five bridge contracts across the state.

This spring, the DOT awarded a contract on replacing Boling Bridge at the Hall-Forsyth County line. The project on Dawsonville Highway/Ga. 53 over the Chestatee River is set to begin Nov. 1.

“This last year has given us the ability to jump-start a lot of work,” McMurry said. “I would say that by this time, or a little bit later next year, you’ll see a marked difference. You’ll see a lot of projects underway — and many completed.”

Still, with Hall County’s many road needs, progress may seem slow. Traffic gets clogged on roads throughout the area, from Browns Bridge Road in West Hall to downtown Gainesville and Mundy Mill Road in Oakwood.

But there is blue sky ahead, thanks to the new law, McMurry said.

“We now have a path to look at (widening) Interstate 985,” he cited as an example. “We actually having funding coming up soon to start ... to understand what the (interstate’s) needs are, (such) as adding a lane.”

Construction could start within the next 10 years.

“That sounds like a long time off, but we have the ability to get it started now where we can achieve that — whereas, in the past, that wasn’t even possible,” McMurry said.

Overall, some $230 million in road projects are funded for Hall, said state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville.

“There are a number of intersections that will be improved and congestion will definitely be relieved, and I think we will see that economic development and transportation are attached at the hip,” he said.