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The Road Ahead: What next?
No firm road-fix solutions in view for Georgia
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A transportation plan B? Wait and see.

With the overwhelming death of the transportation sales tax on Tuesday, Georgia’s leaders are pondering ways to take care of current and future needs, as well as crumbling infrastructure.

On Wednesday, Gov. Nathan Deal promised “belt tightening” and prioritizing projects in order of need, but how that will shake out in terms of funding is the big question mark.

“We will work through the appropriate channels to make sure our top projects are submitted to the governor’s office,” said Srikanth Yamala, Hall County’s planning director.

He went on to say: “The result of (Tuesday’s) referendum does not diminish (Hall’s) project list or the funding shortfall — $290 million over the next 10 years or $1.3 billion over the next 30 years. Bottom line, our current transportation needs and uncertainty of project completion dates remain unchanged.”

Technically, the sales tax vote could come up again in two years, meaning the formation of new regional transportation roundtables and creation of project lists. Politically, that’s another matter given the referendum’s sound beating at the polls.

Statewide, the referendum was hammered the hardest in the 13-county Georgia Mountains region, which includes Hall, where support was a meager 25 percent.

There has been some talk of allowing individual counties to put the sales tax on a ballot to build and maintain roads, but such a move may not gain any immediate traction.

“I think the times we’re in right now are such that until we have a change in Washington, D.C., possibly a new president, a new mindset, I just don’t see people buying into it,” said State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, who served as one of the Georgia Mountains’ regional roundtable’s legislative members.

Increasing the state gasoline tax is another issue — one that tea party members said they believed should be considered — but that leads to another issue: balancing gas tax revenues among the congressional districts, as required by law.

“We’ve got another congressional district, so the pie is split 14 ways starting Jan. 1,” Rogers said. “I voted for congressional balancing 15, 16 years ago, but in different times. (Now) I think it’s unfair the congressional district in Southwest Georgia gets the same amount of dollars we do in Northeast Georgia.

“That’s probably something that needs to be revisited.”

Also on the table is the possibility of toll roads.

“There are so many options out there, we’ll just have to see what the leadership (of the state presents),” Rogers said. “I’m sure they’ll have to regroup this fall and decide.”

The transportation sales tax, if it had passed, was always meant to supplement — not replace — the current source of funding: federal and state gas tax revenues.

So even though the tax failed, transportation improvements didn’t end in Georgia.

David Spear, the Georgia Department of Transportation’s press secretary, has said the projected total spending for fiscal 2013, which began July 1, is $988 million.

Even better news: Georgia is “seeing tax collections return to pre-recession levels,” he said.

Construction is expected to begin this year on a couple of major Hall County road projects: the widening of Ga. 347/Lanier Islands Parkway from McEver Road/Peachtree Industrial Boulevard to Interstate 985 and the widening of Ga. 347/Friendship Road from I-985 to Ga. 211/Old Winder Highway.

The Friendship Road project will include six-lane segments and will run in front of the Northeast Georgia Health System’s planned South Hall hospital.

However, Todd Long, the DOT’s deputy commissioner, has said he expects federal funding to take a dive in 2015, after the expiration of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, a 27-month transportation bill approved by Congress in June and signed by President Barack Obama.

“They’re taking money out of the general fund in Washington to help fund transportation,” he told the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s South Hall Business Coalition on July 10.

“If Congress lives within its means ... there’s this general attitude that eventually they’re going to say, ‘Whatever the gas tax brings in is what we’re going to spend on transportation,’” he said.

If that happens, in 2015, Georgia “will probably see a 25 to 30 percent decrease” in transportation funding.

Another problem with the gas tax is increasing fuel efficiency, said Charles Bullock, political scientist with the University of Georgia.

“That’s probably not going to be the be-all and end-all for (transportation funding),” he said.

Furthermore, Bullock noted, a solution doesn’t seem to be at hand.

“I think it’s going to take awhile,” he said. “It took several years to get (the tax) onto the ballot. There were various ideas debated in the legislature and (they) went nowhere.

“And having put the effort in and the money and lose as badly as (the sales tax referendum) did, I would think we’re not going to see anything coming out of this coming (legislative) session to try to readdress it.”

Regardless of what comes out of the General Assembly, governments in the Georgia Mountains and all regions that rejected the tax will have a price to pay for that rejection.

The Transportation Investment Act of 2010, which paved the way for the referendum, calls for the government match for the state’s Local Maintenance Improvement Grants — money that goes for resurfacing and other work — to increase to 30 percent from 10 percent.

Hall County, for example, received $900,000 in fiscal 2012. If it qualifies for the same amount this fiscal year, it would have to come up with $270,000 to receive the money.

Also, the sales tax rejection will put the brakes on numerous projects, many of which have been in the works for years.

For example, Yamala has said, the widening of Spout Springs Road to four lanes between Hog Mountain Road and Gwinnett County could be pushed off to 2030 instead of 2015.

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