Monday, May 12, 2008

Transportation Key Focus of General Assembly Session:

Over the past two decades Metro Atlanta has faced explosive population growth that is currently choking the region’s infrastructure. Fayette County has not been immune from these issues. Every year, as more people have moved into our county, the congestion on our roads has only increased. The time it takes to go to our jobs, or drive to the store or to drop our children off at school increases by the year. Every single minute we are on the road is one less minute we have to spend with our families. I believe addressing transportation congestion in Fayette County and Metro Atlanta must be one of the top priorities in the legislature.

Transportation in Georgia is largely funded by a tax on gasoline purchases. This funding mechanism becomes less sustainable every year as cars get more fuel efficient and more individuals are changing to hybrid cars and alternative fuels are becoming more of a reality. It is clear that our current funding model in Georgia will need to be revamped in the very near future. However, before we begin the process of fixing the funding model, I believe we need to ensure the government entity that is responsible for administering the funding, the Georgia Department of Transportation, is capable of efficiently performing such a task. Currently, I have serious doubts that the DOT has such capabilities.

During the session, the House and Senate both considered measures to provide regions of the state with the ability, through a referendum, to increase sales taxes for the purpose of funding transportation infrastructure projects. The money collected would have then been funneled through the DOT to spend on projects designated by each region, in collaboration with the DOT. The DOT would then have been tasked with designing, managing and delivering each project. Depending on how many regions of the state participated, this would have potentially routed billions of new taxpayer dollars through the GDOT. The legislation was put forth as part of a collaborative effort by a broad spectrum of interest groups including; local governments, business groups and the environmental community. While I appreciate these groups’ hard work on this legislation, I simply believed this action would have been premature at this time. For that reason, I voted against this measure that ultimately died in the Senate on the last night of the session.

The DOT’s new Commissioner, Gena Abraham, is doing great work to reform the DOT, however, it is a work in progress. When she came on board in recent months the book keeping was so poor, her staff could not even tell her how many projects they had scheduled. In the last month, state auditors determined they could not even audit the books because they were in such disarray and asked the state to fund a private sector audit. I simply do not believe this is an agency that needs to be tasked with spending billions of new taxpayer dollars, until its house is put in order. I support Commissioner Abraham’s reform efforts and believe she is making important steps. I was also pleased to support legislation that passed this session requiring a comprehensive progress report from the DOT on the Statewide Strategic Transportation Plan by June 30, 2009, and annually thereafter. The report must include costs, funding sources, and timelines for current and future DOT projects. Further, the General Assembly enacted legislation that requires the DOT Commissioner to develop and publish benchmarks detailing a realistic time frame for completion of transportation projects. This measure requires annual reports to be submitted to the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Speaker of the House for any project above $10 million and explain discrepancies between benchmarks and actual performance. All of this will help ensure DOT is acting as good stewards of Georgia’s tax dollars.

This session, the General Assembly also enacted a program that has worked well in numerous other states. HB 1019 establishes a state revolving loan fund for infrastructure projects. This “infrastructure bank” will provide local governments with the opportunity to access low interest loans for their local projects. As the debt is repaid on these projects the money will then be available to be loaned again for additional projects in other localities. This program is subject to available annual appropriations, which will ensure close tabs are kept on the success of the program.

I am committed to working to find a solution to our transportation gridlock in metro-Atlanta and Georgia. Our funding mechanism is antiquated and needs to be overhauled. I believe it is incumbent upon office holders to work collaboratively to address our state and region infrastructure needs. However, I also strongly believe we must ensure any solution ensures that taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly and efficiently. I look forward to working with all groups in the coming years to address the issue of traffic congestion and infrastructure funding needs.

As always, please do not hesitate to contact me if I may be of assistance (404-656-0109).

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