One of these things is not like the others:
- $8 million to promote the Army National Guard alongside the film “Man of Steel”;
- $3.5 million for solar panels on a Massachusetts airport, many of which sit covered by tarps because their glare distracted pilots;
- $9 million in overtime fraud at the Department of Homeland Security alone;
- $8 million for 127 fast-tracked projects to reduce traffic congestion across Georgia.
If you’ve come to expect anything worthwhile from government to cost at least eight figures, the Georgia Department of Transportation has spent the past year trying to convince you — and your state legislators — otherwise.
Tucked into this year’s budget was an $8 million “quick response” program to attack traffic congestion. The goal, GDOT Commissioner Keith Golden says, was to show “what we can do when you give us a funding source that’s not federal. We can move faster and at a lower cost.”
Almost a year later, the agency has completed about two-thirds of its list. In metro Atlanta alone there were 20 of these can-do projects, with a budget of not quite $2.2 million. Ten are already finished.
The projects are small: adding or extending turn lanes at busy intersections, for example. But they help alleviate bottlenecks that back up traffic on roads that otherwise wouldn’t be so congested.
The above contrast with examples of federal waste was intentional. Georgia gets 59 percent of its transportation budget, including almost three-quarters of its funding for construction, from Washington. But that money, most of which comes from gas taxes paid by Georgians, can be costly to use.
State Sen. Brandon Beach, a former DOT board member, recalls when the agency wanted to build a 1.5-mile road called Westside Parkway in north Fulton. The estimated cost was about $16 million. The state didn’t have the money but was able to land $4.6 million in federal funds.
“We thought we hit the lottery,” Beach says. Instead, the feds mandated additional environmental reviews which turned up an endangered species in a nearby creek. That didn’t stop the road from being built, Beach says, but it delayed the project by five years and increased its cost by $9 million — more than twice the amount the feds contributed.
“We’d have been better off without the $4.6 million,” he says now.
More recently, says Sen. Steve Gooch, another former DOT board member who chairs the Senate transportation committee, Georgia lost time and money complying with a federal order to look for an endangered bat. “So far, out of all the studies, none exist” here, he says.
The state conducts environmental reviews even for projects that aren’t federally funded, Golden says. It just doesn’t have to answer to as many agencies. Planning delays are also common with federal projects, he says.
One way to cut out the federal time and money drains would be to let states keep the bulk of the federal gas tax now collected and routed through Washington, as U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger, has proposed.
At the state level, we could stop diverting roughly one-sixth of the state’s gas-tax revenues to the general fund instead of the transportation budget. Or we could let local governments levy transportation taxes in a more flexible way than the T-SPLOST that failed across most of Georgia.
Even in a legislative session with tempered expectations, building on GDOT’s $8 million experiment ought to be possible.