Georgia DOT Plans for New State Transportation Funds

October 9, 2015

This story originally appeared in the October 2015 edition of Georgia's Cities.

Federal transportation funding
Transportation funding challenges in Georgia and other states have been building for a number of years, partly because the 18.4-cents-a gallon federal gas tax is not indexed to inflation and hasn’t been raised in more than 20 years. While vehicle fuel efficiency has increased, the tax has remained flat. This has led to re­peated shortfalls in the federal highway trust fund ac­count. The latest patch by Congress—the 34th short-term transportation funding extension since 2009 (and the third one in 10 months)—extends the fed­eral government’s authority to process aid payments to states through October 29. This temporary fix does not create the certainty state DOTs require in order to plan major transportation projects.
 
Like other state DOTs, Georgia DOT has lost ground. Due to limited funding, the state’s infrastruc­ture has degraded—not only on state highways and interstates, but also on local roads, county roads and city streets. Numerous roads, bridges and other proj­ects have been put on hold due to delayed or reduced federal funding.
 
State transportation funding
In their 2015 legislative session, state lawmakers ad­dressed Georgia’s critical transportation infrastruc­ture needs. Georgia’s Transportation Funding Act (TFA) of 2015 (House Bill 170), which took effect July 1, is expected to generate an estimated $830 mil­lion to $1 billion in sustained annual revenues to fund routine maintenance and capital improvements.
 
The Transportation Funding Act changes the mo­tor fuel tax structure by converting the state gas tax to an excise tax rate of 26 cents per gallon on gaso­line and 29 cents per gallon on diesel. It also annually indexes the rate for increased vehicle fuel efficiency and for inflation. Other provisions eliminate tax cred­its for jet fuel and electric low or zero emission ve­hicles; and impose new fees on heavy trucks, electric vehicles and hotel stays.
Georgia DOT Commissioner Russell McMurry believes that the Transportation Funding Act will be viewed historically as one of the state’s most impor­tant political infrastructure decisions.
 
“It is a game changer for Georgia! It provides a sustainable funding mechanism so that the state can address critical infrastructure needs, such as taking care of our bridges, roads, drains and basic mainte­nance needs as affirmed by the Legislature’s Joint Study Committee for Critical Transportation Infra­structure Funding,” McMurry said. “It shifts Georgia away from total federal dependency for our capital projects and provides GDOT with flexibility to strate­gically utilize funds. However, the need for funding to address local needs still exists.”

GDOT will start receiving the new funds in July 2016.
 
“We’ve been getting our program and processes ready for months so that we can advance projects quickly once we start to receive the finances,” Mc­Murry explained. “The new revenue will go first toward a backlog of road and bridge maintenance needs. GDOT is prioritizing this backlog with a focus on increased routine maintenance—like pavement preservation, vegetation management, increased mowing and safety enhancements. Bridge replace­ments are a top priority. One important aspect for lo­cal governments is an anticipated increase in LMIG (Local Maintenance & Improvement Grant) funds.”
 
Much routine maintenance is handled by the each of Georgia DOT’s seven districts. Routine mainte­nance includes pavement preservation—crack seal­ing, patching, concrete rehabilitation and joint and pipe repair; vegetation management—mowing, litter pickup, right-of-way reclamation and herbicide appli­cation; safety enhancements—guardrail, striping, sign repair and replacement, and raised pavement mark­ers; and other activities—sound walls, fence repair, sweeping and drainage.
 
Increased bridge replacement and expansion of the bridge maintenance program is also a primary goal and GDOT is prioritizing structurally deficient and load posted bridges on all routes—including both the state and local system, explained GDOT Chief Engineer Meg Pirkle.
 
“On critical routes we need to be able to support legal loads for trucks and ensure last mile connectivity from the port to distribution centers. For local roads, GDOT is ensuring that critical needs are met. For ex­ample, we are looking at whether an ambulance can get to a house or a school bus can get from a house to a school,” Pirkle said. “GDOT’s bridge program is expected to triple in three years. It has doubled this year with $100 million in bonds appropriated by the state legislature.”
 
Another benefit is that the state-funded projects are not coupled with federal funds, which may re­quire many more regulations and processes that add costs and delays. By using state funds, GDOT can shorten the environmental process, and save time and money on administration and inflation.
 
“We must still protect the public interest and be good stewards of the environment, have public in­volvement, follow federal laws regarding wetlands and threatened and endangered species, obtain per­mits, and coordinate with environmental and historic preservation agencies,” Pirkle noted. “The difference is less coordination time and shorter review time for the environmental process and flexibility in the plan development process. We have done this suc­cessfully in the TIA (Transportation Investment Act) program. An interchange in Columbus was ready in 2½ years—a 50 percent reduction in preconstruc­tion time.”

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