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Sunday, February 01, 2009

Any Road Will Get You There - Unless You're Stuck In Traffic

publication date: Jan 31, 2009

author/source: Liz Flowers / Beacon Media

By Liz Flowers / SPECIAL

If you’ve been thinking about adding to your I-Tunes music collection or expanding your books on tape library because of the increased amount of time spent on your daily commute, 2009 might be the perfect time. It’s not clear whether state leaders will be able to get their arms around the gigantic state budget shortfall, but it is clear that local governments are feeling the pinch and are becoming creative in solving transportation and infrastructure project delays.State lawmakers continued discussions this week about how to close the $2.6 billion state budget gap, which includes a $190 million hole in the Georgia’s Department of Transportation (GDOT).

Georgia’s DOT local projects are already backed up 10 years, which comes as no surprise to anyone within commuting distance of North Fulton.City leaders have begun to shift transportation gears, as they prepare for another year of a weakened economy, decreased revenues, and a continental divide in how to fix the problem. “There is not a single transportation project in the City of Alpharetta, which includes state or federal dollars, that is not impacted directly by the shortfall at the state/federal levels,” said Alpharetta city councilman John Monson. “If the funding is available in the GDOT accounts, they are still holding them up in order to see how much of the trillion dollar federal O'bailout funds Georgia will receive,” Monson said.He said he completely understood the need to delay funding of any new local projects or projects that have not completed the milestone of right-of-way funding (the purchase of land associated with the project). However, Monson said to hold up projects promised in prior years' budgets, with those funds already in encumbered accounts, represents broken commitments to Georgia's taxpayers.

Alpharetta is moving ahead with some projects. On its own dime they are working on the Mayfield-Canton Road intersection improvement ($1.8 million); Upper Hembree at Maxwell ($601,000), an Adaptive Traffic Control System ($810,000), the northern end of Big Creek Greenway ($2 million from hotel tax funds), and another $1 million in sidewalks. But other projects may have to wait.Roswell’s Director of Transportation, Steve Acenbrak was preparing to make a presentation to council members, and his passion for infrastructure improvements was untainted by the economy. He said his department would concentrate on taking care of what they already have, but Roswell’s GDOT experience isn’t much different from Alpharetta’s.Acenbrak said the city is finally underway with the Grimes Bridge project, which GDOT has had on their “to do” list since 1997. He said another 10-year-old project at Holcomb Bridge was still bogged down over matters related to excessive grading.Julie Breckbill, communications director for Roswell, said revenues are down, but she said the city is prepared for years like 2009.

Mayor Jere Wood has promised not to lay-off or furlough any city workers, nor delay maintenance on infrastructure projects.Breckbill said Roswell has $31 million in its reserve fund; only $15 million in reserves is required under law. She said Roswell typically uses the reserves to fund one-time capital improvement projects.“Foreclosures are up, but not as severe as in some places,” said Breckbill. “Property values have remained stable. We are very lucky.”

The newer North Fulton cities of Johns Creek and Milton may face tougher transportation decisions due to smaller commercial tax bases, limited cash reserves, self- imposed millage rate caps and an inability to bond (borrow) against future tax payments.

In his State of the City address given this week, Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker essentially asked community leaders to help push forward bond efforts, saying city leaders know what the problems are, but might not have the money to fix them. He said it would cost $15 million during coming years just to stay even with current conditions. The Johns Creek annual budget can’t handle the transportation fixes necessary or wanted by the citizens.Leaning heavily on a survey the city commissioned in late 2008, Bodker said that one-third of the 300 respondents said traffic was their No. 1 concern – slightly more than half of those respondents cited traffic and congestion as a primary concern for the city.

Managing Public Expectations

Getting “below the road,” makes good sense in lean times, says Josh Rowan, an engineer with the national firm PBS&J. The company has worked on two of Roswell’s downtown beautification projects.Part of traffic and transportation improvement, says Rowan, is managing consumer expectation. He said that when many of us visualize a traffic fix, we think of what the world might be like driving at 95 MPH at 1 a.m. with four other cars on the road. Not going to happen he said.“Sewers and water are things you can control locally,” Rowan said. “Manage what you can and don’t resurface just to resurface. There are plenty of secondary issues you can work on before you build a six-lane road.”

Rowan said without repairing what lies beneath, three days later a pothole fix can be peeling and that’s taxpayer money wasted. He said adding to capacity might not be feasible in this economy, but if you can afford it there is a whole construction community starving right now.“There’s not a lot of political glory in maintenance,” Rowan said.But maintenance is necessary and Acenbrak concurs. “Roswell is a bedroom community that is two-thirds residential. We don’t plan to spend a lot of time and effort and money to go 95 through our town. We want to make a safe system and look for ways to improve connectivity,” he said.

The Road Less Traveled

Two distinctly different transportation/infrastructure fixes that could pump much-needed cash into cities have emerged at the state level. One plan allows for regional transportation coalitions and taxing. The other option would allow the state to tax an additional one cent for transportation and provide those funds to local governments. One of those measures is backed by the State Senate, the other by the State House leadership with Gov. Sonny Perdue as the wildcard.

The trio has a track record of infighting.Convoluting the debate is a power struggle over who gets to control MARTA (Metropolitan Rapid Transit Authority), GRTA (Georgia Regional Transportation Authority), and how much money Georgia will receive from any federal programs as they become available.Perdue is reported to be developing a measure to realign Georgia’s transportation departments.Georgia Democrats have a dog in the fight, too. After all, they are ones with the Obama connection.“While it will take several significant steps to solve our transportation problem, the voter-approved local option sales tax concept has been successful in the past to provide meaningful funding to local regions and communities,” said Jaillene Hunter, communications director for Lt. Gov Casey Cagle.The Senate’s regional tax plan is expected to come up for debate early in the coming week.

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