Originally created 03/15/03

Road fund bill softens limits



ATLANTA - A bill is moving through the General Assembly that would relax requirements that road-building money be spent equally among each area of the state.

The bill is supported by legislators from metro Atlanta, and opponents say they fear it would reduce the pace of road construction in other parts of the state.

"It would be less money for rural areas," said Sen. Peg Blitch, D-Homerville.

Ms. Blitch voted against the bill in the Senate, along with 12 other rural lawmakers from both parties, including Sens. Don Cheeks, R-Augusta; Randy Hall, R-Augusta; and Jack Hill, R-Reidsville.

The measure passed 37-13 and is awaiting action in the House Transportation Committee. Rep. Ralph Twiggs, D-Hiawassee, leads that committee and has a reputation for looking out for rural parts of the state.

"It is a rural-urban issue," Mr. Twiggs said. "We have as many needs in the rural areas as in the urban areas."

Since the 1970s, the board of the Department of Transportation has had a policy to split 70 percent of road money equally among each of the state's congressional districts. Rural legislators successfully made that policy law in 1999 and required that 85 percent of the money be spent equally, with a few exceptions.

That left 15 percent for the board to allocate to districts with special needs. The bill the Senate passed included amendments that exempt from the district-balancing requirement several major programs - many of them centered on metro Atlanta.

As a result, only about 20 percent of what the state spends on transportation will be subject to equal distribution. Sen. Chuck Clay, R-Marietta, the author of one of the amendments, defended the change before the Senate vote.

"I don't see this as being an anti-rural amendment," he said, adding that the flexibility would allow the state to take full advantage of all the federal matching funds available. "This is not to leverage up urban dollars."

The Transportation Department staff prefers the greater flexibility and specifically asked that interstate highway spending geared toward reducing urban congestion not be subject to the district balancing.

The logic for that exemption is that people from throughout the state use interstates to travel through metro areas even if they don't live in the area.

"We have some interstate projects in the metro area that would be all of the funding for the congressional districts," said Harold Linnenkohl, the deputy commissioner of transportation.

Gov. Sonny Perdue, who comes from a small town south of Macon, hasn't spoken up on the issue.

His influence could be persuasive, Mr. Twiggs said.

ROAD SPENDING

Here is how the Georgia Department of Transportation has spent money in each congressional district in the past three fiscal years.

The law requires that 85 percent of the state's total transportation spending be split equally among each district by the end of every five-year period, and so the department must adjust spending for the next three years in order for each district to balance.

Spending in the 1st District is high because of improvements done along the Interstate 95 corridor.

DISTRICT......FUNDS SPENT

1......$1.075 billion

2........$826 million

3........$484 million

4........$431 million

5........$752 million

6........$685 million

7........$476 million

8........$750 million

9........$842 million

10.........$670 million

11.........$658 million

Source: Georgia Department of Transportation

Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424 or wjones@morris.com