DOT’s non-highway programs

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.

16 comments Add your comment

[...] Highways Vs. Everything Else, Georgia Edition (AJC) [...]

Dumb and Dumber

June 12th, 2012
7:45 am

The Federal Railroad Administration should not waste its time or money on an environmental impact statement that involves passenger rail coming in to, or out of, Georgia. We lack the leadership, the political will and the interest of the public. While there is strong support in Fulton and DeKalb for options — that falls off when you ask the question in the suburban counties.

I agree that GDOT can draw some nifty commuter rail maps (they’ve been at it for 20 years) but they will never lay 100 feet of track and should really just give up the pretense. It only makes them look incompetent (now is the time to change their name to the Highway Department).

As for the TSPLOST, even though I ride MARTA every day, I’m voting no. Its an ill-conceived bill that if passed, would give control of beltline transit and the Lindbergh Corridor rail to GRTA — which by any measure has been a failure. That GRTA runs bus lines that compete with Cobb, Gwinnett and MARTA express bus service is a head-scratcher. Sure, they took millions of federal funds to do it — but those funds could have been used to create an intra-state bus system (Lawrenceville to Marietta or Marietta to Athens, anyone?). That the conservatives that run this state somehow think that having a state-run transit agency take tax dollars (GRTA) and compete with local agencies that also use tax funds (Cobb, Gwinnett and MARTA) is a good idea is beyond me.

Oh, but we live in Georgia and we don’t expect much from our state government here. What did Forrest Gump say? Something about ’stupid is as stupid does’ — well then hello GDOT, GRTA and the Georgia Legislature.

Don’t give these people $5 billion plus. They’ll mess it up and probably make our commuting time worse.

Mike

June 12th, 2012
7:39 am

How exactly is this the “wrong tax”??? Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Denver, etc all passed a sales tax to fund transportation projects. You either use the gas tax or a sales tax…. that’s how pretty much every place does it.

Second, the project list does take care of several MAJOR bottlenecks such as 285/85 in Dekalb, 285/20 on the westside, 400/285 in Sandy Springs, widens Piedmont Road and adds Bus Rapid Transit through Buckhead which nobody can deny that road is a nightmare right now, upgrades 316 intersections to interchanges, rebuilds roads in the Windy Hill/75 area, and builds a rail line through the Emory/CDC area which is a large employment center with little transportation options and heavy congestion. There are many light synchronization and road upgrades throughout the city of Atlanta which are also badly needed.

Angus

June 12th, 2012
4:40 am

And once again (Friday), our governor overrode a by-law mandated increase in the gas tax.

Do we really have a funding problem or a leadership problem?

Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.....

June 12th, 2012
2:14 am

Joe_Harris

June 12th, 2012
1:51 am

This so-called transportation referendum is nothing more than a red-herring to enable politicians, bureaucrats, real estate developers and land spectulation interests to get their slimy, grubby little hands on even more of the public’s money.

This TIA/T-SPLOST is nothing more than a huge unseemly scam and a get-even-richer-quick scheme that is being perpetuated for a very powerful and well-connected wealthy few to be able to line their already deep pockets with even more of our money.

Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.....

June 12th, 2012
2:07 am

SAWB

June 11th, 2012
5:00 pm

“I have no doubt there is fat in the overall State Budget that can be cut to eliminate the need for increased gas taxes.”

You are very much correct as, currently, 4% of the state’s gas tax is directed into the state’s general fund.

Take that 4% of the gas tax that goes into the state’s general fund and redirect it back towards road construction for untolled roads, where it should already be going, and then finance all construction of new expressway lanes with USER FEES in the form of tolls and then finance all upgrades of transit as needed with USER FEES in the form of increased fares that actually help pay for the enitre cost of the construction, operation and maintenance of each transit infrastructure and public-private partnerships in which a private partner provides a large chunk of financing for the transit project.

Redirecting the 4% of the gas tax that goes into the state’s general fund back to construction of untolled roads where it belongs, utilizing user fees in the form of tolls to finance construction of all new expressway lanes and utilizing user fees in the form of properly-priced fares and public-private partnerships to upgrade transit will totally and completely negate the need for huge tax increases on everyone to pay for supposed transportation upgrades (a tax increase which will really only become nothing more than a dedicated revenue stream for yet another slush fund for politicians, bureaucrats and their developer, roadbuilder, railbuilder and consultant cronies).

Joe_Harris

June 12th, 2012
1:51 am

Atlanta definitely needs to pass this referendum to sustain continued growth that the city has year after year. Not only that but the current transportation infrastructure is not even sufficient for the current population. We need to be able to get around the city more efficiently and make our city more transportation friendly for potential new businesses and tourists to the city.

Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.....

June 12th, 2012
1:11 am

Out by the Pond

June 11th, 2012
5:06 pm

We don’t need significant amounts of new taxes to finance our transportation problems in Georgia as taxes are high enough.

What we really need is to finance long-overdue upgrades to our freeway system with user fees in the form of tolls.

I agree with you that the Grady Gulch (the I-75/85 Downtown Connector that carries well over 300,000 vehicles per-day with the combined traffic on Interstates 75, 85, 20 and Georgia 400) is a big problem in the center of the city.

But given the increasingly fiercely anti-road political environment in this metro area, especially inside of I-285, there are no other options for redirecting that traffic on the I-75/85 Downtown Connector elsewhere, which serves as the only road link between the Atlanta Airport, Downtown and the heavily-developed and heavily-populated Northside (Buckhead, the I-285 Top End of Sandy Springs, Perimeter Center and Dunwoody and the heavily-populated Northern Suburbs up the Georgia 400 North Corridor).

Since we can’t build an “Outer Perimeter” bypass/outer loop to take through heavy truck traffic off of I-285 and we have no remaining land to widen the freeway system Houston-style (many Houston-area freeways have been recently widened with the I-10 West/Katy Freeway now having as many as 26 lanes in some places), one of our only options is to expand the freeway system horizontally by double-decking all of the Interstates and Georgia 400 to more effectively handle the exceptionally heavy truck traffic that comes through the Atlanta area.

We could finance the double-decking project by placing tolls on the upper-deck which would be open only to vehicles with six or fewer wheels.

The lower-deck, which would consist of the existing roadway, would remain open only to vehicles with more than six wheels in most cases (trucks, buses and trailers with more than six wheels).

Out by the Pond

June 11th, 2012
5:06 pm

There is no question that we need a significant amount of new taxes to fix the transportation problems in Georgia especially in the Metro Atlanta area. The problem with the upcoming vote is 1. It is the wrong tax and 2 these are the wrong projects. We can not continue to add to the existing problems by modifying a broken system. There will never be a solution to Atlanta’s traffic problems as long as every major road is directed through the Grady Gulch.

Atlanta has more truck traffic than any city I have experienced. If there were no trucks passing through Atlanta there would be very little traffic. If every interstate were not funneled through the Grady Gulch a major portion of Atlanta’s traffic would be eliminated.

SAWB

June 11th, 2012
5:00 pm

It is kind of ironic that as we listen to our leader’s advice to buy more fuel efficient cars and make other lifestyle changes to use less gasoline we may be rewarded with higher taxes on gasoline. This reminds me of a few years ago when they told us to reduce our use of water. When people responded by decreasing usage they began discussing price increases to make up for the lost revenue.

I fear our leaders no longer think they work for the people, but just see us as an inexhaustible revenue stream. I have no doubt there is fat in the overall State Budget that can be cut to eliminate the need for increased gas taxes. However, I fear we are in store for more of the same as we elect mediocre leaders based solely on their position on devise, but obscure issues like abortion.