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State transportation chief talks about funding issues
1019Vance Smith
Vance Smith

Georgia’s roads chief was in Gainesville Monday talking about funding challenges the state faces in transportation and a couple of options voters face that might bring some relief.

Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Vance Smith, addressing the Gainesville Rotary Club at First Baptist Church on Green Street, said the state “lives off that motor fuel tax” and that amount has dropped to $852 million from $1 billion in 2007.

“When gas hit almost $4 a gallon, people changed their driving habits,” Smith said.

Even the DOT looked for ways to encourage conservation among its employees, including carpooling, riding public transportation and working from home.

“We’re actually working against ourselves,” Smith said, chuckling.

As a result of falling revenues, the department “is having to look at alternative methods to fund transportation in Georgia.

We can’t just stop and roll back on our heels and depend on the great road system that we have.

“As soon as that ribbon is cut on that (new) road, it moves from a capital outlay project ... to a maintenance project.”

The DOT “just has to be more efficient,” Smith said. “We’re working constantly to see how we can combine shops, combine certain things we do ... to try to get the job done with less people.”

A decade or so ago, the department had as many as 8,000 employees. Today, it has 4,873.

He talked about a couple of funding options — both in the hands of voters — that might help improve transportation.
First up is a Nov. 2 statewide constitutional amendment, which, if approved, would allow the DOT to enter into multiyear construction agreements.

The DOT says it would have the flexibility to only pay for the amount of work done in a given year, increasing the number of projects that can be done.

“I’m not here to tell you to vote for it ... or against it,” Smith said. “I’m here to ask you to please read, ask questions, learn as much as you can about (the amendment).”

Also, this year, the General Assembly approved the Transportation Investment Act of 2010, which allows voters within established districts throughout Georgia to decide whether to OK a penny sales tax for transportation and transit improvements, from new roads to maintenance and operation.

In Northeast Georgia, two representatives from each of 13 counties, including Hall, must form a regional transportation roundtable.

To proceed toward a 2012 vote on the tax, that group must hold its first meeting after Nov. 15 and decide on a final project list by Oct. 15.

Smith again didn’t push for voter approval, asking that residents learn as much as they can about the program.

“Is this a lifesaver for GDOT? No,” he said. “There’ll have to be additional, alternative methods, different ways to do things, to fund transportation in the future.”

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