ATLANTA - Legislation inspired by a long-overdue project in Columbia County hit a last-minute roadblock before lawmakers wrapped up Thursday night, and another bill affecting an Augusta hospital never got the chance for a final vote.
The road bill, which started as a way to hold contractors accountable for delayed road construction projects, fell victim to eleventh-hour politics as representatives weighed it down with a proposed change in the control of revenue produced by the state's gas tax.
Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, sponsored House Bill 1090 after a project to widen Furys Ferry Road to four lanes missed its completion deadline by almost two years.
The original proposal would have barred contractors from bidding on a new road project if they are behind on an existing one.
As the session wound down to its final hours, the conference committee used the bill as a vehicle to change how $800 million in annual gas-tax revenue is spent.
Instead of being dedicated to the Department of Transportation, the gas tax money would be in the hands of the Legislature, which has often wished it had those funds for other uses.
Not surprisingly, the idea of making a last-minute change of such magnitude with little public discussion killed the bill.
The House managed to scrape together enough support, voting 97-73 to approve it.
But the Senate left Mr. Harbin's bill on the pile of unfinished business.
Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, said taking up the bill with its addition of the highway-funding provision would have bottlenecked the Senate's pace in the final hours by prompting heavy debate.
"You have to create a funnel, and you only have so much time," he said. "The Senate had not had the time to look at that in a deliberative manner. I don't think we had been given a chance to do that."
Ronnie Hutto, Columbia County's preconstruction engineer, said he thinks Mr. Harbin's original idea to address late road projects will come up again. And DOT officials say the Furys Ferry lanes are expected to be finished by the end of April.
"I feel sure (the bill) would have passed had they not attached so much to it," Mr. Hutto said. "I think sometimes that you get late in the game, and they start playing with it. It gets confusing with what they're doing."
West Lake resident Karen O'Gorman, who regularly uses Furys Ferry Road to take her children to school, was still holding out hope Friday that Mr. Harbin's bill could be salvaged.
"I'm certainly disappointed that the bill is not going to be introduced," she said.
"I would hope that they could work out quickly any language issues that might be holding it up. Overall, that bill is a good thing to have."
State DOT spokeswoman Vonda Everett recently said that the four lanes under construction on Furys Ferry Road would be open by April 30, but some minor work would continue beyond that date.
Calling the Furys Ferry Road construction delays "annoying," Mrs. O'Gorman is pessimistic concerning the likelihood of an April completion date.
"I remember a letter (Columbia County Commission Chairman) Ron Cross sent out saying it was going to be done last September," she said. "I'll believe it when all the cones are down."
On Friday, Mr. Cross, who lives in a neighborhood off Furys Ferry Road, said he expects the work to be completed in the next two months.
"My hope is that in two months, we'll have forgotten all about Furys Ferry Road because it will be open and it will be working fine," he said. "And these people (the contractor, Reeves Construction) maybe have learned their lesson. I know they're losing money on the project, so that's always a lesson."
Mr. Cross said he believes it might be a good thing that Mr. Harbin's original measure didn't go through.
He said he had concerns about how preventing certain contractors from bidding on a project might cause the cost of state projects to increase.
"It may be best that it's left like it is," Mr. Cross said. "... In some cases, you'd wind up with just one bidder and the work that had to be done because of the need and you'd be forced to go ahead with those bids in a noncompetitive situation.''
Staff writer Preston Sparks contributed to this report.
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