Depletion of federal highway funds stalls projects

ATLANTA — Two dozen transportation projects across the state – including some in the Augusta area – are in jeopardy because state officials worry the federal government won’t be able to chip in its share for them.

 

The federal Highway Trust Fund is projected to run out of money this summer.

“As soon as August, the Highway Trust Fund, the account that pays for building and repairing our nation’s roads, will start bouncing checks,” U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said earlier this month. “Un­less Congress acts, up to 700,000 Americans will lose their jobs over the next year. And roadwork, bridge building, transit maintenance … all these projects will be delayed or shut down completely.”

The Obama administration wants Congress to approve targeted tax increases on corporations, described as loophole closing, to pump $150 billion into the trust fund over four years. That would end a six-decade reliance on the motor-fuel tax alone.

Other proposals include raising the gas tax for the first time since 1993 or imposing a tax on miles driven, as improved gas consumption is the reason the trust fund is no longer adequately funded. But there doesn’t seem to be much agreement.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said Thursday that despite a Senate Finance Com­mit­tee hearing on funding alternatives, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doesn’t want to bring up a controversial bill before the election.

“Practically speaking, I think we’re going to have a temporary funding bill,” Isakson said. “Hopefully when we get this election behind us we can have a discussion about a long-term funding solution.”

Georgia officials don’t want to start projects they can’t finish. State law requires essentially having all of the cash on hand before digging the first shovelful of dirt.

“This summer, Georgia and other states are all totally confused about availability of funds because the transportation bill we have now which expires in September is not fully funded,” said Todd Long, Georgia’s assistant transportation commissioner.

So they sidetracked projects, from a bike-pedestrian facility in Greensboro to sidewalks for the Jefferson City school system to bridges on Interstate 59 and I-24.

For the most part, when projects underway are completed around the state, activity – and construction jobs – will end without a fully funded, long-term federal bill.

That could jeopardize major projects that are in the planning stage. In Augusta, these include widening Georgia Highway 28 from the South Carolina line to Evans to Locks Road, widening Georgia Highway 388 from I-20 to Georgia Highway 232, widening Flowing Wells Road from I-20 to Washington Road, widening Georgia Highway 121 from Browns Road to Tobacco Road, bridges on I-20 at the Savannah River and widening Georgia Highway 4 from Milledgeville Road to Government Street.

However, the Augusta region and two others that passed the transportation sales tax will continue to see activity on projects funded solely by the new tax and state money.

As a temporary measure, Gov. Nathan Deal approved the sale of bonds and the use of some accrued state gas-tax money. It will fund a reduced number of projects that are eligible for federal contributions, which will be made up once Congress passes a bill.

“We looked at capacity and decided that was the most we could do. These are still relatively small, but it continues to allow us to have work,” Long said. “We can’t do this again.”

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