SMYRNA — The head of the Georgia Department of Transportation told a group in Cobb this week his agency relies too heavily on federal money but still needs support from Washington.
GDOT Commissioner Keith Golden said during a luncheon at Vinings Bank this week the state transportation department is struggling to meet rising needs with fewer resources.
The department’s fiscal 2014-15 budget includes $80 million for capital improvements and $200 million for maintenance.
But Golden said that won’t go far when divided up by 14 districts across the state and stretched across Georgia’s 48,000 miles of state highways. By comparison, Golden said, the state of Florida has $9 billion for maintenance and $3.4 billion in capital improvements. Georgia has 9.9 million residents while Florida has 19.32 million.
Much of the department’s projects are funded by federal allocations, a 4 percent state sales tax and a 7.5 percent gas tax, with 1 percent going to the state’s general fund budget.
Depending on money trickling down from Washington isn’t a sustainable plan, Golden said, because there is too much red tape involved and a lag in getting reimbursement after requests are made.
“We’ve got to find a way to break away from our dependence on federal dollars,” said Golden who is appointed by the 14-member State Transportation Board.
Though Georgia is too dependent on Washington’s money, Golden said, becoming more independent won’t happen overnight and a lack of attention from federal lawmakers on a transportation funding bill has him nervous.
“There’s fixin’ to be a train wreck on the federal side, too,” Golden said.
Funding bill set to expire
A federal transportation funding bill is set to expire in September. Golden said under that bill, transportation funding levels have been artificially kept at the status quo while buying power has declined, forcing the government to borrow money from China.
That has put stress on the highway trust fund, Golden said, which funds projects across the country.
“It’s not a sustainable option and everyone knows it,” Golden said. The bill doesn’t expire until September, but because the federal government takes its time reimbursing states for projects, Golden said he is having trouble planning ahead. He calls it the “fiscal cliff of transportation.”
“I’m going to have some serious cash flow issues moving forward,” Golden said. Georgia has little power, Golden said, because none of the state’s congressmen or senators are on transportation committees in either chamber of Congress.
Congressman Tom Price (R-Roswell) said transportation is something that affects residents across the state. “As a donor state, Georgia families pay their fair share and then some toward the nation’s transportation needs,” Price said in a prepared statement. “Our hope and our goal is that we can find a timely set of solutions that will provide as much flexibility to our state and local leaders, streamline or scale-back federal regulatory involvement, and keep the resources — particularly the highway trust fund — targeted on projects these programs were originally intended to support.”
Michael Andel, spokesman for Congressman David Scott (D-Atlanta), said transportation funding is a big problem, but he’s not optimistic Congress will finish the bill in time because legislators are in an election year.
Scott is not on the Transportation Committee, so he will not be drafting the bill. He said he will be supportive of passing a new transportation bill and will work in a bipartisan effort to do so.
U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Marietta) did not respond to inquiries from the MDJ.
Golden said legislators are aware of the problem, but don’t know how to fix it.
“They’re all aware of it,” Golden said. “I would venture to say they’ve got a lot of things on their plate with education and health care, and transportation is just another thing jockeying for their attention.”
Raising gas tax not ‘suicide’
Lawmakers have only two viable choices, Golden said: Raise the gas tax or only spend money that is collected.
Golden said the latter would be a big hit to the state transportation department. Raising the gas tax is never popular, Golden said, but it would likely not stop drivers from filling up their tanks. “I don’t know how many of you drove home one day by RaceTrac and gas is $3.12, and when you come in the afternoon it’s $3.26,” Golden said. “I don’t ever see anybody decide I’m so mad about this I’m not buying gas. They keep on going. They buy their gas.” He maintains raising the gas tax wouldn’t be political suicide, but said it’s still unlikely. “I don’t know that we have the legislative will to do it right now,” Golden said. The transportation special purpose local option sales tax, commonly called TSPLOST, that failed overwhelmingly in metro Atlanta in 2012 was poised to help fund transportation projects.
Golden said voters are beginning to have remorse over rejecting the TSPLOST because they are watching the 46 counties that passed the tax begin to grow.
Golden: Braves won’t have negative impact
During the luncheon at Vinings Bank, Golden was asked if the new Atlanta Braves stadium to be built in 2017 in the Cumberland area would have a negative impact on traffic around the intersection of Interstates 75 and 285.
He said the area already has a good street network, and there will likely be few night games that take place on a weekday and impact commute traffic.
The entertainment district planned to be built in conjunction with the stadium will also spread out traffic, Golden said, because spectators will likely spend more time in the area instead of leaving at once.
“I’m not sure it’s going to be as much of a negative impact,” Golden said.
Golden was also asked about another local issue: Cobb Chairman Tim Lee’s plan to bring a bus rapid transit system connecting Kennesaw State University with Midtown Atlanta.
Lee’s original estimate for the project was $1.1 billion but that has since dropped to $494 million.
He traveled to Cleveland, Ohio, in August last year alongside other Cobb leaders to learn more about the city’s smaller but similar bus system. Golden was noncommittal about the project but said it could be effective.
“There’s certainly a lot of trips that make that demand,” Golden said.