Local control benefits touted at transportation summit
Gwinnett County leaders kept coming back to one common theme at the Georgia Transportation Summit in Atlanta on Tuesday: Local officials are better than federal representatives at running transportation projects.
Or at least the public trusts their local government more than the federal level, according to U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga.
The congressman told a packed ballroom filled with transportation officials, experts and business leaders that local officials have to be involved in, if not leading, efforts to address transportation issues facing individual communities.
“If I go through my district and ask people, ‘Who do you trust with your tax dollars?’ the counties are going to overwhelmingly come out as No. 1,” Woodall said. “About 50 percent of folks trust counties and local governments more than they trust anyone else.
“About 30 said they trust state governments more than anybody else and the federal government get a small fraction of that at the end.”
The summit brought together a range of officials at the Georgia World Congress Center. County commissioners, county- and state-level transportation staffers and representatives of the business community came together to share ideas about how to best approach transportation projects.
In sessions where Gwinnett County officials were panelists, the frequent answer was to keep the funding sources as local as possible because of the paperwork involved in getting through bureaucratic processes needed to get the project moving.
Woodall said it can take as many as 84 months to complete a project that has federal funding. Meanwhile, he said, projects where the state is the highest level of government involved can take as many as 30 months to complete.
In one session, Gwinnett County commission Chairman Charlotte Nash explained that the county uses SPLOSTs and partnerships with the Georgia Department of Transportation as a main way to get projects done quickly.
“Most of the funding for transportation projects that are available to those of us at the local level entail a referendum of some sort, whether it’s a GO Bond referendum … or SPLOST and, now, single-county option of a T-SPLOST,” Nash said. “That means you’ve got to figure out a way to make sure you are giving the public reasons to vote in favor of the referendum.”
In another session, County Transportation Director Alan Chapman said reducing the number of regulators by keeping projects as close as possible to the local level, or working directly with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, also helps a project.
“We normally have just one or two partners who are providing the regulation and review of what we’re doing,” he said. “I do appreciate all of the regulators that we work with, but when you only go through one versus going through several, it does save you a good bit of time.”
But about $350 billion in federal funding could become available for projects that are deemed to have national importance, according to Woodall. The House of Representatives and the Senate have each passed long-term transportation funding bills that could keep money flowing to such projects for the next six years and are now negotiating a single bill.
Examples in Georgia of projects that Woodall said could be deemed to have national importance include the Savannah port expansion. Plans to fix the Interstate 285 interchanges at Interstates 75 and 85 to relieve congestion also fall into that category because they are key corridors needed to transport goods from Savannah to other parts of the country.
“If you can’t get your good from the Savannah port to the rest of America, the entire country is going to suffer,” Woodall said. “That’s why we’re investing national money in the port and why we’re investing national money in these interchanges.”
Woodall is part of a conference committee made up of members of both chambers to finalize a bill that can go to the House and Senate for approval.
He said a key difference between the otherwise similar bills is that Senators found more funding sources than their House counterparts could come up with. As a result, the Senate version makes a few billion dollars more available for transportation projects, Woodall said.
The committee’s goal is to get a final bill in place before the current short-term funding bill expires on Nov. 20, according to the congressman.
“I believe that’s possible,” Woodall said. “If we can’t get that done, we’re going to look at the first two weeks of December. You know we have this big train wreck that happens at the end of every congressional session as folks try to jam stuff through in December. A lot of that is partisan and a lot of that is controversial.
“My goal is to make sure, whatever happens with the timeline, we separate this very cooperative, non-partisan transportation solution from any of the shenanigans that happen at the end of the year.”