Originally created 11/14/97

Congress keeps highway money coming to Georgia, S.C.



WASHINGTON -- Federal transportation funding will continue to flow to Georgia and South Carolina uninterrupted, following congressional approval of a stopgap reauthorization of the highway program.

Under a bill passed by the House of Representatives late Wednesday, Georgia will be able to spend up to $293.3 million on highway projects over the next six months, with South Carolina getting up to $179.1 million. The Senate approved the measure two days earlier, ending fears that the states could run out of money for certain highway programs by the end of the year.

The six-month extension became necessary when Congress couldn't decide between competing versions of a six-year reauthorization of the highway funding program.

"It would have been more desirable to have a six-year bill," said John Johnson, an aide on transportation issues to Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga. "But he's not interested in seeing people laid off because of political wrangling over (highway funding) negotiations."

A coalition of lawmakers from Southern states has been pushing for months for major changes in the formula used to distribute federal highway aid. Under the formula established in the 1991 highway bill, Georgia gets back only 74 cents for every $1 the state's motorists pay in federal gasoline taxes, while South Carolina's share is only 70 cents on the dollar.

But lawmakers from states that benefit under the current formula, primarily in the Northeast, have held up any multi-year highway legislation that would make more than minor adjustments to the status quo.

With Congress rushing toward adjournment for the year, state transportation officials and representatives of road construction workers urged lawmakers to enact a six-month extension of the highway program and put off the regional debate until next year. They argued that project schedules and jobs were at stake.

"Had something not been done before the Christmas break, we would have had to look at either using state emergency funding or furloughing some of our officers," said Shawn Davis, a spokesman for the Georgia Public Service Commission, which runs the state's truck safety program. "Now, it looks like we'll be able to continue monitoring truck safety compliance with no problems."

The six-month bill will give both Georgia and South Carolina well above half of the federal transportation funds the states received during the last fiscal year. The measure also continues federal funding for mass transit projects, traffic safety programs and metropolitan planning organizations.

But the bill's long-term importance may be that it builds momentum for the effort by so-called "donor" states to win the battle over the funding formula next year, said H.B. "Buck" Limehouse, chairman of the South Carolina Highway Commission.

"We were successful in that we stopped them from reauthorizing the current formula or something close to it," he said. "This was a good day for the Sunbelt."