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What's next for transportation projects

With tax off table, state has not matching funds

POSTED: August 3, 2012 2:30 p.m.

The controversial 1-percent sales tax for transportation projects failed in the Coastal Region, garnering 53,760 no votes compared to 39,699 yes.
That means projects like the Hinesville bypass, Flemington Loop and the 15th Street widening hang in the balance with uncertain funding sources.
And that uncertainty is widespread, according to experts like Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, and Hinesville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization planning director Rachel Hatcher.
“To be frank, we just don’t know. Throughout the process, GDoT has always said, ‘There is no plan B,’” Hatcher said. “Well, plan A failed, so is there no plan? We don’t know. We have to wait to see what our federal highway, federal transit and GDoT representatives tell us comes next.”
Leading up to the vote, many leaders said they’d heard speculation that the Coastal Region most likely would pass the measure.
The measure did pass in three of the 12 taxing regions: the Central Savannah River Area District, the River Valley District and the Heart of Georgia Altamaha District, according to the Georgia Secretary of State Elections results page.   
Liberty County voters favored the tax by a narrow margin, with 50.95 percent of yes voters and 49.05 percent no.
But with the measure defeated, what comes next for the transportation projects?
“That is a good question,” Williams said. “You can forget a gas-tax increase, because people don’t like tax increases. Anybody that’s ready to end their career can say that we need a gas-tax increase.”
Williams, who supported the tax, added that he does not anticipate the General Assembly will revisit the transportation funding issue “because the Legislature doesn’t have the stomach to bring it back up.”
“I do know that there’s a lot of egg on the face of the governor and the leadership, because when you lead and lose, you lose ... but I certainly will not change my tune; I supported it then,” he said.
In a written statement released Wednesday, Gov. Nathan Deal pledged to reprioritize on transportation.
“We’ll have a ‘need to do’ Transportation Improvement Program list, but not a ‘want to do’ list,” Deal wrote. “In addition to tight state budgets, we’re also facing a significant reduction in federal funds, so tough choices await.”
His statement reminded regions that did not pass the tax that they will see an increase in local-match requirements from 10 percent to 30 percent, and the three regions that passed it will see a “return on their investments.”
“Yesterday’s vote wasn’t an end of the discussion; it’s a transition point,” Deal added. “We have much to do, and I’ll work with state and local officials to direct our limited resources to the most important projects.”
At this point, HAMPO will move forward with its established Transportation Improvement Plan, which has four years of projects slated to receive funding independent of the tax, Hatcher said.
Those projects include the widening of Airport Road and Veterans Parkway and right-of-way acquisition for the Hinesville bypass.
LCPC Executive Director Sonny Timmerman previously said T-SPLOST projects like the Hinesville bypass still are on the table, but without the tax they will not come to fruition until the 2030s.
But funding for projects so far into the future is based on projections, which makes the numbers vulnerable to outside factors.  
“If those dollars come in shorter, you can’t build everything on that list, so we don’t know moving forward what those dollars and cents will be,” Hatcher said.
Short-term, Congressional allocations passed at the end of June will provide Georgia with roughly $1.1 to $1.2 billion each year for the next two years, but federal funding is uncertain beyond that time.  
Further complicating the issue is that federal funds tied to the T-SPLOST list required state matches, which would have been provided through the tax revenues. Now the state is unable to meet most of the matches.
Williams said there is a lot of chatter about the predicament statewide, but that it’s too soon for any sort of solution to emerge.
GDoT Deputy Press Secretary Jill Goldberg on Wednesday confirmed Hatcher’s response and said she is not privy to legislative conversations but that the reaction seems to be the same statewide.
“I have read and seen the same things that you have,” she said, adding that the department will continue with the projects previously authorized.
“[They] will not be fast-tracked through the T-SPLOST. We do know that we are facing funding shortfalls. … All of these things have impacts on us that are uncertain at this point in time. You just don’t know,” Goldberg said.
She added that the department does know its two-year federal appropriations, but that officials face the challenge of working with future uncertainty and a revenue crunch.
“We still have a system to maintain and grow but insufficient revenues to do so,” GDoT press secretary David Spear said by email. “We will continue to try to best utilize the resources we have, however; there continues to be a need for long-term sustainable funding.”

 

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