Politics & Government

Road funding squeeze threatens interchange of Macon interstates

ATHENS -- Pressures are increasing on state lawmakers to add to the shrinking state fund to pay for big road, bridge and rail projects and their maintenance.

At the same time, a key federal fund is “broke,” which is further holding up the big works planned for the interchange of interstates 16 and 75 in Macon.

“We all agree it needs to be done. There’s just not a funding source identified,” Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Keith Golden said at a pre-session forum for Georgia lawmakers on Monday.

He said the Federal Highway Trust Fund, the bucket that holds the federal gas tax and pays for the lion’s share of interstate works nationwide, is broke.

Georgia transportation planners have banked on getting about $1 billion out of the fund annually, but that fund is due to run out of cash this month. Even if Congress appropriates more money, anything less than $1 billion means GDOT will need to reshuffle priorities.

Both that fund and a twin Georgia-only fund are collecting less money from gasoline tax because people are buying less gas for today’s more fuel-efficient cars.

Georgians pay two kinds of state tax on gas: a sales tax based on the gas price, and another on the volume of gas. When gas is cheap and people need less of it, the state collects less money. In the current fiscal year, Georgia expects about $1 billion dollars, but not all that goes to transportation, and it could be less if gas prices stay low.

The Macon work would cost about $300 million, Golden said. Interstate work is funded mostly by federal money and also requires a state match.

But with both of GDOT’s funding sources going dry, there’s no way to start construction on the interchange, nor the other dozen or so highest-priority projects.

The interchange is a “bottleneck” for port customers, said James McCurry, senior director of administration and governmental affairs at the Georgia Ports Authority.

The authority will soon start work to deepen the Garden City Terminal in Savannah to 47 feet. That means more truck traffic through the interchange, according to the state’s official logistics plan.

When the GOP-dominated state Legislature begins work early next month, there will be a lot of pressure to find more and new transportation money within the state. In undertones at the pre-session biennial meeting at the University of Georgia, they’re whispering about tax increases.

“Nothing’s off the table,” said House Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla. He’s also co-chairman of the Joint Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding study committee, which has held hearings statewide over the past few months. It has the unenviable job of pitching legislation to the state House and Senate.

The study committee’s report is due by the end of the month, and draft legislation is due a few weeks later.

“We definitely need new revenues,” said state Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch. Besides all the work backlog, Georgia’s population is set to grow.

“Our current road network has got to address” population growth, he said.

The last time state officials tried to raise big transportation dollars was in 2012, when they offered groups of counties the option to vote themselves a penny sales tax to pay for the work.

Just three groups of counties accepted -- all in south and east Georgia-- and they are paying a penny that the rest of Georgia is not.

Rather than have those counties pay into yet another fund, Epps said he would push for those residents to be exempted from any new transportation tax.

In Macon, the I-16, I-75 blueprint calls for widening and reconstructing I-75 from Hardeman Avenue to Pierce Avenue and I-16 from I-75 to Walnut Creek. Modifications would include wider shoulders, concrete barriers and enlarging the I-16 interchanges at Second Street, Spring Street and Coliseum Drive.