Opinion Columns & Blogs

Charlie Harper: State moving with new funding

Government is a strange vehicle from which we translate the fickle desires and demands of short-term public opinion and translate them into the long-term infrastructure and institutions that will serve the next generation. Those who hope to be in politics or government for the long term need to have one foot squarely planted where the public wants them to be today, and the other stretched toward where the people will need them to be tomorrow.

Vision and leadership are not for the timid. Both have equal risk of moving too far or too fast to meet the demands of the people today. There's also the risk of a bold vision missing its target in execution with a guaranteed chorus of critics waiting in the wings and ready to say "we told you so."

Georgia remained stuck in between short-term politics and long-term transportation needs for over a decade before comprehensively addressing the problem last year. The fourth-fastest-growing state in the country had fallen to last in highway spending per capita.

Leaders decided to focus on a broad statewide funding plan and leave the specifics on exactly how and where the money would be spent to the GDOT board. After much public debate, the bill that passed the legislature ultimately had enough bipartisan support that it could have qualified to be a constitutional amendment.

No policy victory is complete, however, until those who voted for it stand for re-election. Thus far, the roughly $6 extra per month that Georgians are paying in excise taxes have been offset by the $95 per month they're saving due to the falling price of oil. It's OK for politicians to be lucky in the process of trying to be good from time to time.

But rather than quietly hoping that the public has moved on, Georgia's leaders, including the governor, members of the legislature's transportation committees, and board members and staff from the Georgia Department of Transportation, remain on offense. They want Georgians to know what is being done with the new funds that are available to meet the state's transportation needs.

A Capitol press conference hours after the annual Eggs & Issues breakfast highlighted several key initiatives and long-term plans for GDOT's new revenue stream. Chief among them is a website, GARoads.org. The website is to serve to increase transparency and speed information of what's going on. Visitors can search upcoming projects in their area and see how and where their tax dollars are being spent.

Georgians should note that funds exclusive of interstates and freight corridors are subject to "congressional balancing." This means that each congressional district gets the same amount of money, distributing Georgia's transportation dollars by geography and population. This includes the regions that have already passed T-SPLOST referendums.

A year of study leading up to the bill revealed that it will take 20 years of significant investment to get Georgia's bridges and roads back into a normal maintenance schedule. Repaving projects will get about four times the money they received last year, while investments in bridge repair and replacement projects will roughly double.

Overall, more than a half-billion dollars per year of sustained investment in maintenance will take care of the roads and bridges we already have. The governor has also recommended that the state contribute an additional $100 million above the funds raised by HB 170 via this year's budgeted bond package.

There will also be added money for new projects. Metro Atlanta is projected to see over $10 billion in new projects to increase mobility over the next decade. Meanwhile, areas outside metro Atlanta will receive emphasis on freight corridors in all corners of the state. The goal is to disburse the freight headed to and from the Port of Savannah -- and the related economic development opportunities that come with it.

As a bonus, there's anecdotal evidence that the new monies may go farther than expected. GDOT had committed to rebuilding the state's largest interchange at Ga. 400 and I-285 prior to the passage of HB 170. Expected to cost about $1.1 billion, the project's bid came in more than $400 million below that. That's money that can immediately be reinvested in more projects to increase Georgians' mobility.

Those who decided to put their vote behind action and a bold vision for Georgia's next decade of transportation projects now have concrete (and asphalt) plans to show their constituents. The critics remain on the sidelines, but are increasingly losing ammunition as the promises made during the debate are being kept through transparency and committed funds to both maintenance and new projects.

Charlie Harper, executive director of PolicyBEST, a public policy think tank, is also the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com, a website dedicated to state & local politics of Georgia.