Here’s what motorists can expect to get out of the Transportation Funding Act of 2015: more orange cones on major highways and thoroughfares.
“If you think you’re delayed now, I’m here to tell you it’s probably going to get worse,” Jimmy Smith, the district engineer for the Georgia Department of Transportation, said Thursday. “But that’s a good thing. That means the cracks in the road get filled and the ride gets better and all the bumps that you run over and complain about – we’re going to fix.”
Smith was one of three state transportation officials giving metro area business and community leaders an update on how the state is moving forward now that the landmark legislation – also known as H.B. 170 – will pump nearly $1 billion a year into road and bridge maintenance.
The bill, which essentially eliminated the state fuel sales tax at the gas pump and enacted a 26-cent excise tax, is designed to reduce the state’s dependence on federal highway funds and uncertainties caused by fluctuating fuel prices.
The new tax system, which also includes a $5-a-night hotel tax, is expected to generate an additional $757 million in transportation funding in fiscal 2015-16 and $820 million more in fiscal 2016-17.
Smith, who was joined by Georgia DOT board member Don Grantham and state Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cassville, said the 4,000-employee state agency is going to have to change its “business model” if it is going to bring long-languishing projects up to speed.
The state, for example, has traditionally spent $80 million to $100 million on resurfacing roads statewide; this year the agency hopes to spend $400 million.
Shortening maintenance schedules means more opportunities to outsource work to the private sector, Smith said.
“It was tough doing what we had to do with $2 billion, and now we’ve got another billion to spend,” he said. “What does that mean? It means we’re going to have to have a lot of help from consultants, a lot of help from contractors.”
The officials reiterated that H.B. 170 was primarily designed to maintain the state’s transportation infrastructure, not fund new construction. Those projects, such as improvements to Wrightsboro Road around Grovetown and the extension of River Watch Parkway in Columbia County, will primarily be financed with the special transportation tax that voters in the Augusta region approved in 2012 under the Transportation Investment Act of 2010.
The 13-county Augusta region – one of only three statewide to approve the 10-year, 1-cent sales tax – has a total of 84 transportation projects valued at $731 million. Smith said all of the first-phase projects are now underway.
Augusta banker Phil Wahl, the chairman of a four-member citizen’s review panel overseeing the projects funded by the special transportation tax, said he was encouraged to hear the state is expanding contracting opportunities and is putting more emphasis on transportation system maintenance.
“One of the big concerns I have with capital projects is, how are you going to maintain them after they get built?” he said. “I’m glad to hear we have a funding source that primarily is going to let the state get caught up on deferred maintenance projects as well as future maintenance needs of roads and bridges that are getting older.”
Thursday’s forum at the Legends Club was sponsored by the Georgia Transportation Alliance, an arm of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, and organized by the Augusta Metro and Columbia County chambers of commerce.