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The Athens Banner-Herald


      February 17, 2003


GRIP projects now under siege


Funding challenges to blame



By Dave Williams, Morris News Service


GRIP has been financially strapped for most of its 14-year history.


  ATLANTA - The state Department of Transportation has been building highways at the most frenzied pace in the state’s history.


   DOT awarded more than $00 million in road-construction contracts between July and December, the first half of the current fiscal year. Nearly $13 million of that came in October alone.  But by the time fiscal 2003 ends in June, several converging circumstances may have made those flush times just a small dot in the rearview mirror:


    Facing a lean budget year, Gov. Sonny Perdue is asking the legislature for only half of the $00 million the DOT sought for the Governor’s Road Improvement Program --GRIP--, the network of four-lane highways considered vital to rural Georgia’s economy.


    The funding primarily responsible for last fall’s upsurge in highway contracts, a new form of revenue-anticipation bonds, is unavailable because it’s being challenged in court.


    Municipal officials and lobbyists for transportation businesses are worried about long-term projections for GRIP. After a substantial increase in fiscal-year 2005 - from $00 million to $75 million - the program is slated to get only $0 million a year in fiscal 2006-08.


   ’’It’s scary when you look at it, especially if you’re from rural Georgia,’’ said Terry Lawler, president of Georgians for Better Transportation, a coalition of businesses primarily involved in the transportation industry.   GRIP has been financially strapped for most of its 14-year history. During most of those years, it has received between $00 million and $50 million.


   At that level of funding, the DOT two years ago predicted it would take 17 years to complete the GRIP network, which includes U.S. Highway 441, Georgia Highway 72, the Fall Line Freeway and the Savannah River Parkway.



AVOC COMMENT:   These two stories shows the difficulty and challenges inherent in Transportation funding.   Roads all over Georgia  are being neglected.  Some areas worse than others.


One can notice changes when one crosses county lines.   Obviously, some communities have more clout than others.  Elbert County has fared okay.  Oconee and Morgan have not done so well with U S 441 to I-20 and beyond.  Oconee & Greene have not gotten much improvement to GA 15 in this area.   Barrow, Oconee and Clarke have not done too well with the upgrade of GA 316.   Oconee’s widening of the GA 53-Mars Hill Corridor between U S 441 and GA 316 seems to be floundering since being placed in the State-Federal funding pipeline in 1998.


Oconee and other local counties should be faring better: all Republican: U S Senator, U S Congressman, Two State Representatives, two State Senators etc.


Legislators need to push the GRIP program for Northeast GA.  Transportation needs are great here and it is less expensive to manage because of the lower population than Metro-Atlanta.


It is good to be philosophical about taxes etc.  However, if our excellent transportation system declines and begins to unravel --like some neighboring states-- will we remember who to credit with that achievement?


It is not an overnight problem or solution.  However, transportation needs is one of the most important functions of government at all levels.


Wendell Dawson, President, AVOC, Inc.


A B-H & AJC Articles continued.........


   But that was before the General Assembly approved former Gov. Roy Barnes’ plan to speed up the work with an influx of bonds that would be backed by Georgia’s share of future federal transportation aid. He argued that the additional funding would make it possible to finish GRIP in just seven years.


   The 2001 legislation began to pay off almost immediately. During fiscal 2002, the new bonds provided $44.8 million to GRIP, helping launch the road-building boom that continued into the first part of this fiscal year.


   Now, the tap has been turned off as quickly as it was turned on. Opponents of the proposed Northern Arc highway in Atlanta’s northern suburbs filed a lawsuit last year charging that the financing mechanism is illegal.


   A Fulton County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the state, but the case now is on appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court. A ruling isn’t expected until spring.


   Uncertainty over the fate of the bonds, coupled with Congress’ failure to adopt a fiscal 2003 transportation budget last fall, is hampering the DOT, said state Transportation Commissioner Tom Coleman.  ’’It’s very hard to do any long-range planning,’’ Coleman said.


   With that huge pot of money uncertain, highway advocates are resuming their efforts to convince the General Assembly to raise the state’s gasoline tax.


   Although Georgia has the lowest gas tax in the nation, legislative support for increasing it has been limited primarily to veterans on the House and Senate Transportation committees. One of its strongest proponents, former Senate Transportation Chairman Van Streat, D-Nicholls, was defeated last November. 


   This year, Lawler and others are working on a novel approach that attempts to address a widely held aversion to tax increases. The proposal involves what they’re calling a ’’transportation infrastructure fee,’’ which would increase the state’s 7.5-cent-a-gallon gas tax by 6 percent without making Georgians pay for it.


   Under the plan, the increase would be collected from all motorists at the pump. But the state would rebate the additional tax revenue to Georgians, based on a formula that would take into account the average miles driven by Georgia vehicles each year.    Tom Gehl, policy development manager for the Georgia Municipal Association, said only the highest-mileage motorists could lose money through the rebate.


   The fee would raise an estimated $00 million to $50 million per year after the rebates. But it’s unclear whether a legislator will step forward to sponsor it this year. While supporters argue that the fee technically is not a tax increase, it looks enough like one to make it a tough sell.


   Perdue has said he will not introduce a gasoline-tax increase.  Last week, House Speaker Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, released a statement opposing any form of tax hike.   And the third component of the triumvirate that now runs the state government - the Senate’s Republican majority - isn’t about to be the first to advocate raising taxes. 


   ’’I think any productive discussion of changing the tax structure will require a look at the entire structure,’’ said Senate Majority Leader Tom Price of Roswell.

   ’’There is a real distrust on the part of legislators and citizens of addressing the tax issue without looking at the whole thing.’’



The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


Saturday, February 15, 2003


Forsyth County on road to cash


Paul Kaplan - Staff


It’s payback time for Republican-controlled Forsyth County.


The fast-growing Northside county has received word it could get an almost 30 percent increase in road money from the state Department of Transportation, County Commission Chairman Jack Conway said Friday.


If Forsyth County voters approve a five-year, $60 million special local option sales tax next month, as expected, the DOT will give the county 75 cents for each dollar of the $07 million it plans to allocate for county road projects --- or about $0 million. In the past, matching SPLOST funds were in the 40-to-45-cent range, said state Rep. Jack Murphy --R-Cumming--.


"This will be a much needed enhancement," Murphy said.


Conway attributed the sharp increase to two things --- both of them political.   Forsyth County has long been a Republican stronghold, and with the state largely controlled by the GOP for the first time, the county is being rewarded. Plus, 2002 redistricting increased the size of the legislative delegation representing Forsyth from four members to seven.


"It’s a new day for us at the Capitol," Conway said. "We’re looked at a little differently now."   Conway said the road money is badly needed, especially in the fast-growing southern part of the county.


"We’ve got to look at relieving some of this traffic nightmare that we have," he said.


Of the $07 million allocated to road funds in the county SPLOST, $ million is for the City of Cumming, which also would see a sharp increase in its DOT allotment.