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Our Views: Georgias road to ruin
States transportation plans stuck in gridlock
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It pales in scope to the national economic crisis facing the nation's leaders in Congress, but Georgia has a looming financial disaster of its own that threatens to do ongoing harm to an already battered state economy.

The snarled mess that is the state's transportation system is rapidly getting worse, and the cost of failing to address major issues in the transportation arena could cost the state billions in the near future.

A study presented to the board of the state's Department of Transportation last week concluded that Georgia could lose more than 300,000 potential jobs and more than $500 billion in economic impact over the next two decades if it can't fix some of the problems that continue to plague its transportation system.

Transportation board members were told that Georgia needs to spend $250 billion over the next 20 years in order to keep wheels turning on the state's economic engine. Failing to do so could impact everything from Atlanta's status as a job generator to the thriving port economy of Savannah.

While DOT board members likely concurred with some of the study's findings, the fact is the prediction of transportation-related gloom couldn't have come at a worse time.

Over the course of the past two years, it has become increasingly obvious that the state's Department of Transportation has been taking lessons from the federal government when it comes to budgeting and money management. Over a period of many years, the DOT has committed to far more projects than it has money to build, even as state lawmakers have continued to use road projects as a ploy to gain political favor, regardless of financial realities.

Funding for road projects is complex. Allocations must be approved years before construction actually begins in order to finance right-of-way acquisition and engineering. As a result, annual budgeting involves scores of overlapping projects with various degrees of funding approval and in various stages of completion.

In recent months, it has become increasingly obvious that the DOT and state politicians have approved and promised much more than they have the ability to fund and complete.

As a result, dozens of road projects planned throughout the state have been delayed or forsaken while the DOT tries to straighten out a financial mess that has been allowed to deepen for decades.

Of the $1.5 billion being sought by the DOT in the state's 2010 budget, some 30 percent is already committed to existing projects that are under way but have not been fully funded. The result is much less money available for badly needed new construction projects throughout the state, but especially in traffic-choked metro Atlanta.

Much of the focus on the DOT's poor handling of its finances has come through the efforts of Transportation Commissioner Gena Evans. But adding to the DOT board's problems is the fact that now Evans, whose tenure already has been tumultuous, is again under fire. Past revelations that she was personally involved with contractors doing business with government agencies that she oversaw have led to questions being raised about her ethics and personal character.

Board members last week met to discuss Evans' fate, and are expected to do so again this week.

Regardless of their decision about the commissioner's future, pressing financial concerns remain. The ability to address serious transportation issues in a pro-active manner will determine to a great extent how quickly the state can rebound from its current economic woes.

For now the news on that front is about as gloomy as a dead-end country blacktop at midnight on a moonless night.

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