Georgia is among dozens of states trying to make up for stagnating federal funding of highway and bridge maintenance as cars become more efficient and drivers pay less in fuel taxes.
Figures compiled by The Associated Press show the total amount of money available to Georgia from the Federal Highway Trust Fund has declined 12 percent during the five-year period ending in 2013, the latest year for which numbers were available. That’s compared to a 3.5 percent nationally during the same time frame. The amount of inflation-adjusted federal highway money available to Georgia dropped 18.8 percent since 2008.
Based on population, Georgia experienced the third-largest drop in money available from the fund since 2008 behind only Minnesota and Washington.
Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurray said that has real implications — for example, delaying improvements to a major freight corridor on Highway 84 in south Georgia. Planning and design for future projects also halts when anticipated federal funding doesn’t come through, he said.
“There is a cascading effect,” McMurray said. “Contractors employ Georgians; buy materials, fuel, lube, grease and parts for their equipment.”
Lawmakers and other stakeholders studied the state’s transportation issues for months this summer, including the drop in federal funding available and the state’s own struggle to keep pace with maintenance on roads and bridges. In a 23-page report issued in December, committee members warned that Georgia’s economy was at stake and laid out lawmakers’ options including increasing the state’s gas tax for the first time since 1971.
While a recent poll commissioned by an arm of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce found some support for that approach among voters, lawmakers have been less willing to embrace an outright increase. Instead, Republican leaders in the House rolled out a plan that converts the existing mish-mash of state and local taxes on gasoline into a 29.2 cent per gallon excise taxes, dedicated constitutionally to state transportation needs. That plan sparked dissent from city and other local government officials, who stood to lose about $500 million in sales tax on fuel.
Changes unveiled this week would let local governments continue collecting some sales taxes on gas but require that money be used for transportation purposes, including school bus service. The bill is making its way toward a vote in the House.
Sponsoring Rep. Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, last week warned the House Transportation committee that Georgia isn’t the only state facing the issue but should fear being the only one not to act.
“We have done ourselves an injustice by not going back and updating this until now,” Roberts said. “If we don’t move forward and believe that transportation is important in this state we’re going to send the wrong message.”
The plan’s backers argue that it will decrease Georgia’s reliance on federal funding for road upkeep. In 2014, more than 54 percent of the state’s Department of Transportation budget came from federal funds, about $1.2 billion.
“The more independent we can be from the federal government, the better off we are long term,” said Seth Millican, director of the Georgia Transportation Alliance, an arm of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. “It gives us the ability to spend our dollars more flexibly, and a state dollar spends further than a federal dollar because there are requirements we don’t have to go through.”
Lawmakers are under pressure from Georgia’s business community, including the Chamber and prominent members like Delta Airlines and UPS, to address the state’s transportation needs. Experts warn the economic benefits of anticipated population growth and deepening the Port of Savannah could be harmed by heavy traffic in metro Atlanta and under-maintained highways connecting the port to major business centers.