October 9, 2013

State transportation department looking at ‘fiscal cliff’

Charles Oliver

— Georgia’s transportation efforts haven’t been affected much by the federal shutdown. But the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) faces a “fiscal cliff” in 2015 if Congress doesn’t act within the next year, says Commissioner Keith Golden.

“On the highway side, the impact (from the shutdown) has been little to none,” he said.

Those moneys come largely from the federal highway trust fund, which has dedicated funding.

Golden did say there have been some minor issues with the Federal Transit Administration, which provides aid to local transit systems such as bus systems, light rail and subways.

“There have been some glitches, some payment issues,” he said.

Golden spoke Tuesday to the Rotary Club of Dalton, where he warned the agency does face a major funding issue in 2015 if Congress does not pass another transportation bill. Previous federal transportation bills have not expired for five or six years after their passage, but the current transportation bill, passed in 2012, expires on Sept. 30, 2014.

“People say there’s no chance Congress won’t pass a transportation bill by then. Well, our job is to let them know what will happen if they don’t,” Golden said.

He said that without a new transportation bill GDOT will have no new federal authorizations for construction projects in 2015.

“We couldn’t do any design work. We couldn’t buy any right of way. We couldn’t start any new construction projects. We would continue with the projects that are already underway, but no new projects,” he said.

Absent a new bill, the money for new construction would resume in 2016 but at a much lower level.

The problem, Golden said, is that the money generated by the federal fuel tax isn’t enough to fund all of the nation’s highway needs, so Congress has typically added other money to the highway trust fund. Unless Congress passes a new transportation bill the highway trust fund would have to rely solely on those fuel taxes.

GDOT currently relies on federal funding for about 80 percent of its roughly $1 billion capital budget.

“We rely more heavily than other states on federal dollars,” Golden said.

Without a new transportation bill those federal funds could be cut by about 35 percent.

Golden touched on several projects of local interest. The renovation of the Rocky Face interchange at I-75 has recently begun and is expected to be completed by the summer of 2016.

Golden said that a roundabout at the intersection of College Drive and Dug Gap Battle Road is still on the books. But he said there are no plans for a GDOT maintenance barn in Whitfield County because the department has not had money for new facilities in its budget for several years.

The Whitfield County Board of Commissioners and GDOT signed an agreement for a maintenance barn and the county donated land off the south bypass for the building a decade ago. Golden said that if the county finds another use for the land GDOT would consider returning it.