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Hall Highway Needs Have Outstripped Funding Ability

Fri January 21, 2011 - Southeast Edition
Jeff Gill

GAINESVILLE, Ga. (AP) Here’s Hall County’s situation.

It’s a growing county with mounting road needs and dwindling funding sources.

The Gainesville-Hall County Metropolitan Planning Organization has said $220 million is needed in the next six years “to address today’s development patterns.”

All this means motorists may be hitting the brakes more often as they navigate Hall’s congested roads.

With rapid growth, the Georgia Department of Transportation’s ability to “upgrade capacity has not kept up,” said Teri Pope, spokeswoman of the DOT’s District 1.

“In our normal planning process, from when we define a project and say it needs to be done, the average [duration] is about eight years of work before we start turning dirt and then you have two to three years of construction.”

The state has relied for years on its motor fuel tax to help pay for projects, but that pot is dwindling largely because Georgians are driving more fuel-efficient vehicles.

“We are the ninth fastest-growing state in the union and have the second-lowest transportation funding in the nation,” Pope said. “We’re not going to meet the needs at that level.”

And the Highway Trust Fund, the main funding source from the federal government, “has been broken since September of last year,” said Srikanth Yamala, transportation planning manager for the planning organization.

Georgia has $1 billion in stimulus funding tied up in some 500 projects, with nearly 360 of those having been “given notice to proceed.” Some $7.2 million has been spent on maintenance projects in Hall County, according to the DOT.

On the horizon is a 1-cent sales tax for transportation in Georgia that could help rake in money for much-needed regional and local projects, but it will need voter approval before it’s a go.

A transportation tax was a hot legislative issue before the General Assembly passed the Transportation Investment Act this year.

The law allows voters within established districts — regional commissions — throughout Georgia to decide whether to add the sales tax to pay for transportation and transit improvements, from new roads to maintenance and operation.

Each regional commission must knit together a regional transportation roundtable, including a county and city representative from each county in the region. The county representative is that county’s top elected official and the city representative is a mayor as selected by other mayors in the county.

The Gainesville-based Georgia Mountains Regional Commission has 13 counties.

To proceed toward a 2012 vote on the tax, the roundtable must decide on a final project list by Oct. 15.

Todd Long, former district engineer based in Gainesville and now the DOT’s planning director, plans to run the meeting with the help of a consultant group, said Danny Lewis, executive director for the GMRC.

“If we’re going to have a chance for our cities and counties to survive in the future, they’ve got to step out on faith and do some of their own work,” Lewis said. “This may not be a perfect plan ... but it’s the best thing we’ve got going right now.”

Each roundtable will pick a five-member executive committee. No county can have more than one member on that committee.

If voters within the district approve the tax, the state would begin distributing proceeds in 2013, with 75 percent of the money dedicated to regional projects decided on by the roundtable and 25 percent going to local governments using their discretion on projects.

“We can actually give voters a timeline of when they’re going to see transportation projects occur that they vote on,” Pope said.

Something has to give somewhere for traffic situations to improve, said Yamala, who believes the transportation tax presents an “excellent opportunity” to do that.

“We can’t do business the same old way,” he said. “It’s literally not possible.”

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