Federal funding for transit, roads unclear as region ponders July vote on sales tax

By David Pendered

It’s now clear that the vote in metro Atlanta on the proposed 1 percent sales tax for transportation will occur with few clues from the federal government about its intention to pay for 12 percent of the work.

Federal funding now is in the region’s budget to pay for almost $847 million of the projects that are to be completed if voters approve the 10-year sales tax, which is to raise $6.14 billion in local dollars. The federal money appears throughout the region’s construction list.

But Congress did not pass a federal transportation bill last week, in advance of the March 31 expiration of the previous continuation funding bill. President Obama on Friday signed a 90-day continuation bill, which had been approved by the House and Senate, to forestall a shutdown of federally funded highway and transit projects.

The result is that Congress has until the end of June to resolve its philosophical differences over funding for highways and transit, a debate that now includes a call to eliminate the federal role in the nation’s highway and transit systems. On July 31, voters face the transportation sales tax referendum during the state’s primary election.

Federal funding is supposed to pay for three aspects of the planned transportation improvements that will be on the ballot. Here’s what they are, according to the project list approved in October by the Atlanta Regional Roundtable:

  • $693.9 million – committed to the project list by the Georgia Department of Transportation, from its anticipated federal funding;
  • $120 million – committed by the Atlanta Regional Commission from its anticipated federal funding;
  • $33 million – requested of the Atlanta Regional Commission, from its federal funds, to pay for Xpress bus service by GRTA, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

The highway money covers a broad array of projects: $337.5 million of the $450 million cost of improving the interchange of I-285 and Ga. 400; $32.1 million of the $40.2 million cost of widening State Route 54 in Clayton County; $3.5 million of the $93 million cost of separating the grades of Windy Hill Road at U.S. 41 in Cobb County, a project associated with the widening and improving of Windy Hill Road from U.S. 41 to I-75 – a $27 million project which  is to receive $4 million in federal funds.

Click here to read more details in the ARC’s report.

The Georgia Department of Transportation has existed in this funding limbo for several years. The nation’s last long-term transportation bill expired in 2009.

“Obviously the continuing resolution helps to keep programs and projects afloat in the short term,” said GDOT spokesman David Spear. “But we have gone years now without a new multi-year authorization bill and that really is what is needed for the planning and construction to address Georgia’s long-term needs.”

MARTA’s board of directors has scheduled a meeting for Monday morning to discuss financial issues, in addition to corridor planning studies. The board previously has criticized a federal funding proposal that would have eliminated dedicated funding for transit systems across the country.

The issue of federal transportation funding faded from public view last week as the nation focused on the Supreme Court arguments over the National Health Care Act.

But a report in “Congressional Quarterly” describes how the House became unable to act on its own transportation bill, which was introduced in January, or on a Senate bill, which was passed in March with bipartisan support.

Part of the debate in the House included is whether the federal government should even be in the business of providing highways and transit, according to the story.

That issue was injected into the debate by Heritage Action for America. The group was formed in 2010 and its webpage describes it as a sister organization of the Heritage Foundation, which describes itself as a think tank that promotes conservative public policies.

Click here to read the story in “Congressional Quarterly.”


David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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