The Intermodal Division of the Georgia Department of Transportation oversees all things nonhighway: transit, rail, aviation and waterways. Compared to highways, however, Intermodal gets little money to work with. That hasn’t stopped it from moving forward with studies on new high-speed rail corridors. In our other column, a state senator writes how highways are being hurt by the dwindling fuel tax and why multiple transportation options are important.
Commenting is open below, following the two columns.
By Tom Sabulis
The highway side of the Georgia Department of Transportation, says Carol Comer, “is what everyone sees.”
She should know. As director of DOT’s Intermodal Division, Comer manages the unseeable part.
She supervises nonhighway programs: mass transit, rail, aviation and waterways — programs that take a back seat to highways when it comes to state funding.
“We do support rail and transit and aviation systems,” Comer says of the DOT. But we do not have a dedicated source of funding to help pay for studies and matching funds and participate in capital projects” in those areas and boost economic development.
Per the Georgia Constitution, fuel tax revenue is reserved for roads and bridges.
“We’re very limited in that respect, so it makes our job a little bit harder.”
GDOT “gets a really bad rap — you don’t support this and you don’t support that,” Comer adds. “But I don’t think citizens understand the stranglehold that funding has on us. We rank nationally in the bottom tier for the amount of state funding that we put into intermodal programs.”
To wit, Intermodal’s budget this year is $6 million, which comes from the state’s general fund. In comparison, state fuel tax revenues and federal funds to GDOT for roads and bridges in fiscal 2011-12 tallied $2.3 billion.
Back when the state’s economy was more robust, intermodal programs had made some strides. GDOT’s aviation program increased to $15 million.
But the recession brought it back to $2 million, where it has been for the past several years. “Two million dollars to support 103 airports doesn’t go far,” Comer says.
Still, Intermodal pushes ahead and Comer is eager to talk about new rail feasibility studies that DOT has just completed on four high-speed rail corridors from Atlanta — to Birmingham, to Charlotte, to Jacksonville and to Chattanooga.
No decisions have been made, but DOT wants to be ready just in case money becomes available through partnerships, from the federal government, a winning lottery ticket, whatever.
“All of these [routes] are possible,” Comer says. “But this is simply a ‘what’s-possible’ exercise. Our job is all about providing options. We’re looking to see what the opportunities are.”
The next step is up to the Federal Railroad Administration.
“That would be their Tier One Environmental Impact Study,” Comer says. “That’s their decision. If you go through that process, it starts narrowing things down. That’s when you make your decision. Are we going to invest the money or say, no, this isn’t going to work?”
(The Chattanooga and Charlotte environmental studies are under way.)
GDOT received help paying for the rail research. Birmingham’s regional planning commission contributed. So did Duval County/Jacksonville and freight-rail operator Norfolk Southern.
The Federal Railroad Administration was impressed with the regional teamwork, Comer says, but Georgia has far to go to catch some of its Southeastern brethren (Florida, North Carolina) when it comes to rail.
“When you look at the states that robustly fund their intermodal programs, they typically have dedicated funding, like most states do for their highway program. In Florida, they’ve got commuter rail [Tri-Rail] from West Palm Beach all the way to Miami and a new terminal building, an intermodal center, just adjacent to the Miami airport. It’s a huge success.
“Having the train pulls cars off that I-95 corridor [in South Florida]. It’s not a single mode of transportation, it’s all of our transportation options combined together that work as a system to provide mobility.
By Jeff Mullis
I am committed to improving our state’s transportation system. While our road system has historically garnered national recognition, we have slowly been losing our high rankings in many categories due to nothing more than funding issues.
We have not lost our touch, nor have we lost talented and dedicated people in our transportation agencies. Rather, we have lost funds.
I often hear people say that we have the gas tax. Yes, we do. But that revenue stream has been on a decline for the past several years and will continue to shrink. When I mention this as I am out meeting with people across Georgia, I generally am asked “how can that be?”
The answer is both complicated and simple, so I will share with you the short version today.
Motor fuel tax collections are shrinking annually because the cars we drive are more fuel efficient than ever before; the trend is moving towards people living and working in closer proximity so they have reduced commutes, and there is increased used of carpools, telework and virtual meetings, which all lead to less driving and a reduction in fuel consumption by Americans.
Less gas being purchased means less revenue generated for transportation needs.
So, not only are we in a state of declining revenue sources, but in Georgia we are also hindered by the law that states the motor fuel tax must be dedicated to roads and bridges only.
What about transit projects, rail projects and airports? All are vital to a solid transportation network. Yes, there are some federal funds available for these, but we must generally find “matching” funds — a percentage of the overall cost ranging from 10 percent to 50 percent — to receive the grants.
I have often spoken about my support for projects concentrated on alternate modes of transportation. I had the opportunity to ride a high-speed train in China and was amazed at the number of people that could travel so quickly and efficiently on such a vehicle.
I have worked with the Senate Transportation Committee members to encourage our transportation agencies to move forward on various rail projects, and they have done the best they can with the funding limitations. We are fortunate to have built strong partnerships in our efforts to move projects such as the Atlanta-Chattanooga rail opportunity forward.
Despite all of this work, we still do not have any sustainable fund sources for Georgia’s transportation system.
We have the motor fuel tax and we need to keep it, but we also need an influx of funds to move some important projects forward quickly and to accomplish past-due maintenance and repair issues.
The transportation tax referendum vote July 31st gives us all an opportunity to improve this state’s transportation network and ensure that we will continue to be a viable and desirable location for people and businesses — now and in the future.
Let’s give Georgia a fighting chance to once again be a model of transportation innovation.
Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.