This story originally appeared in the October 2015 edition of Georgia's Cities.
When it comes to federal transportation funding, city officials have a lot to be concerned about. Congress has yet to adopt a long-term transportation plan and under current U.S. Department of Transportation projections, the Highway Trust Fund is expected to remain solvent only through the third quarter of FY2016. Additionally, revenue from the federal gas tax is declining as gas mileage has improved and people drive less.
It is with these concerns about the future of federal transportation funding and local control over federal transportation dollars in mind that GMA asked Congressman Rob Woodall, who represents Georgia’s 7th district and serves on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, to answer a few questions.
The current extension to MAP-21 will expire at the end of October. The U.S. DOT has updated its projections to show that the Highway Trust Fund will remain solvent through the third quarter of FY2016. Is there sufficient support among members of Congress to approve a long term bill in 2015?
There is definitely consensus on both sides of the aisle that we need a long-term bill, and I believe we’re going to get there. Under Chairmen Ryan and Shuster, members of both the Ways & Means and Transportation & Infrastructure committees have been working through the complex issues of getting us there—funding mechanisms, scope of the policy, etc.—and doing it responsibly. That doesn’t always happen as quickly as we’d like, but I see that work coming together soon.
The federal gas tax has remained unchanged since 1993. Gas consumption started declining about 10 years ago as gas mileage improved and people started driving less, as a result, Congress has shored up the trust fund with general fund dollars since 2008. Do you think there is sufficient support among taxpayers for a federal gas tax increase?
Taxpayers want assurance that their hard-earned dollars are being spent wisely and effectively—and they want a dollar’s worth of value for each dollar that they send to Washington. We need to narrow the focus of federal dollars to those projects of regional and national significance, and we must eliminate the red tape and endless delays associated with federal projects. Only then can we get an accurate assessment of necessary funding levels, at which point we can have an honest conversation with taxpayers about what kind of revenue changes are needed.
The 2014 American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Report Card for Georgia gave Georgia’s roads and bridges a C- and transit a grade of D-. What will a long-term transportation bill include that will address the specific needs in Georgia? Will a successful bill include funding for transit?
Georgia is becoming the commerce hub of the Southeast, and while we welcome good jobs and increased growth, we also recognize the new challenges that come along with it. Making sure that bridges are safe for school buses, cars, and everyone that relies on safe road surfaces is not a partisan dispute—it’s a priority for absolutely everyone in Congress, and my colleagues and I on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee are identifying ways to make sure that structurally deficient and obsolete bridges get real priority in terms of making repairs. Regarding transit, any long-term highway bill will absolutely include transit, but it’s only going to be in areas that demand it. I think the key here is local control. Transportation needs vary from county to county, and we need to be sensitive that some communities want transit alternatives and some simply prefer roads.
Cities like Macon and Columbus are taking a serious look at how passenger rail and high speed rail will help connect their regions to metro Atlanta. MARTA is also planning a system expansion. How can Congress support these initiatives for intercity passenger rail?
At the federal level, we absolutely want to be a strong partner and information source for local governments, but don’t want Congress simply mandating or bankrolling projects. Congress can write checks but ultimately inter-city passenger rail needs to be up to the states, counties and cities involved. Many mass transit experts point to express buses as the most efficient way to create mass transit between major hubs. Obviously, heavy rail—or even light rail—is incredibly expensive given all of the new rights-of-way and construction involved. That’s why local buy-in is so important—because when we all have skin in the game, we make the best investment decisions for our community and our state.
Georgia local governments own and operate 84 percent of the state’s roads and bridges, yet under MAP-21, most of the federal funding coming to Georgia goes to GDOT. Will a new long-term transportation bill include flexible funding to local governments?
At the federal level we want a policy that encourages rather than hinders local initiative—and that includes flexible funding—but we also want to provide Georgians with assurance that their tax dollars aren’t being used for those aesthetic improvements in cities all across the country. Finding that balance in the federal/state/local partnership is crucial. Georgia is full of communities where folks are more than willing to contribute to their infrastructure, but we all want that contribution to be used efficiently and prudently. Forsyth County’s $200 million bond initiative is a great example of local communities being willing to take ownership of their transportation funding needs and serves to highlight the desire to ensure efficiency. The closer to home those tax dollars stay, the greater the accountability, and we want to leverage that—not avoid it.