Georgia’s new road funding could obliterate historic sites

By David Pendered

A consequence of the transportation funding bill approved in 2015 by the General Assembly has prompted archaeologists to present their opposition Monday at the Capitol to a measure they say would cripple historic research and preservation.

Dacula Indian mounds

The Dacula mounds are among the remains that could be obliterated under provisions of pending statewide legislation, according to opponent of SB 346. Credit: patch.com

The issue boils down to the how the state is spending its new transportation dollars.

Georgia now is able to fund road construction projects without federal funding. This enables the state to avoid any need to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act as it builds roads.

Senate Bill 346 would waive any compliance with the state version of NEPA on any state-funded road project priced at less than $100 million. The Senate approved the measure and Monday at 2 p.m the House Transportation Committee’s Highways Regulations Subcommittee is to consider it. The bill is one of two on the agenda.

Opponents of SB 346 hope their supporters will provide responses to Senate Bill 346 before noon Monday. That will enable opponents of the bill to print copies and deliver them for the meeting.

Opponents of SB 346 describe the Georgia Environmental Policy Act as a “watered down” version of NEPA. As a result, new road projects in Georgia can be moved forward without much review of what may be just under the ground’s surface.

The bill has an interesting history.

SB 346 was introduced by Sen. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta) and Sen. Jeff Mullis (R- Chickamauga).

Beach is known as an advocate of regional transit, and has spoken broadly of his support for a regional system.

Mullis co-sponsored SB 200 in 2009; it was an early step in the process of reorganizing transportation planning and spending in Georgia, a process that culminated in 2015 with passage of HB 170, which allocated more than $1 billion in state funds for transportation projects.

HB 170 provided the Georgia DOT with considerable flexibility, according to Georgia Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry.

McMurry told the House Transportation Committee in February that the funding shift was occurring. He did not mention any consequences.

Speaking to a group that’s well familiar with traffic congestion in metro Atlanta, McMurry said:

  • ”The State Route 20 corridor is the best example. We were trying to follow that circuitous corridor. We’re now able to move money around a little bit, moving some federal money to the capital maintenance arena, which takes less of federal bureaucracy, and use the state funds toward that capital project [SR 20].”

This funding scenario sets the stage for Georgia to build roads without complying with the spirit of the national NEPA program, whose website describes it as:

  • “The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was one of the first laws ever written that establishes the broad national framework for protecting our environment. NEPA’s basic policy is to assure that all branches of government give proper consideration to the environment prior to undertaking any major federal action that significantly affects the environment.”

 

 

 

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.

9 replies
  1. HighwayMan says:

    The missing part of the story is how all of the engineering companies that do archaeology and the archaeology-only companies are worried that Georgia DOT, the biggest archaeology funder in Georgia, will suddenly go dry. No other agency or research institution in the state spends as much on archaeology as GDOT.Report

    Reply
  2. RichardMoss says:

    @HighwayMan No other agency in the state breaks as much new ground on construction as GDOT, so the work is commensurate with the potential for impacts. GEPA review is not a superfluous cost; it’s an insurance policy that serves the taxpayers well. Imagine the increased costs, delays, and potential litigation GDOT may face if/when Native American burials are inadvertently bulldozed because the site wasn’t identified beforehand?Report

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  3. HighwayMan says:

    RichardMoss But the opposition isn’t pushing for protection of Native American sacred sites and burials. It is opposing cuts to funding that will “cripple historic research and preservation.” Something like a preservation pork barrel: funding glossy studies of trolleys and ranch houses. Or, keeping the $$ tap open for the turnkey engineering companies that do design, environmental studies, and construction for GDOT. Be honest with the taxpayers here.Report

    Reply
  4. MTrudeau says:

    This proposed bill was poorly written and proposed by someone who doesn’t have a clear understanding of the process. In an attempt to remove what is concieved as an impediment, the assessmnet of impacts to the environment, lawmakers hope to save money. However, eliminating GEPA is not that much of a money saver. The process shouldn’t take long at all. Yes, there could be some streamlining of the review process, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not a good solution. By eliminating GEPA from state funded projects, it not only would destroy currently unknown natural and cultural resources, it would open up the door for lawsuits when something is irrevocable destroyed. Consider Flint Michogan: In an attempt to save money, the environmental review process was ignored…leading to one of the worst cases of lead poisoning in the modern era. Like Mr. Moss states, GEPA is an insurance policy against costly work stoppages, lawsuits, and lost heritage.Report

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  5. DumDumbs says:

    @HighwayMan What on earth are you talking about? That is exactly what he’s pushing for, the protection and preservation of potential resources. You are obviously involved with this bill so let me be blunt with you; to say this bill is shortsighted is an understatement. This approach is so lacking nuance it comes off as a joke. Instead of tackling the waste and abuse of taxpayer money within GDOT itself, it proposes to gut an entire policy standard that’s been in place for decades. Once these sites or whatever are gone, they’re gone forever. It seems to me that no one cares for these things until they are destroyed, then people go berserk. When you take away the means of environmental oversight, you end up with situations like what is happening in Flint. While this is not life-threatening, ISIS is currently in the middle east actively destroying humanity’s cultural heritage. This bill would be legitimizing a philosophy currently being employed by terrorists in the middle-east. Why don’t you chew on that for a bit.Report

    Reply
  6. Wormser Hats says:

    As with NEPA – at least in
    intent, GEPA really is a due-diligence regulation that is intended to prevent
    losing taxpayer money on environmental and social impacts of state-funded
    works.  Part of the conundrum comes from GDOT-itself, which for nearly the
    last two decades has known nothing but the processing of projects with federal
    funds; therefore, coming under federal NEPA scrutiny, which is much finer
    filter than GEPA.  So GDOT is – in fact – addressing state-funded projects
    with a federal magnifying-glass.  That is what needs reform, not
    GEPA.  If for no other reason than to protect the state’s interest in
    cultural and natural resources, GEPA needs to stand for all projects 
    Whether to programmatically batch projects of similar type or proximity into a
    single review or survey is something well-worth arguing. 
    Even absent federal-aid, there is
    also the lingering matter of impacts to resources that require federal
    permits. In such cases (which are more-common than the public typically
    understands) GEPA serves as the right-sized filter. In fact, any
    federal action – be it as significant as funding or as minor as a Clean
    Water Act permit requires compliance with NEPA.  However, each federal
    agency (even the same federal agencies in different states) applies this filter
    with varying intensity.
    Mr. McMurry’s citation of SR20 is
    a perfect example of an attempt to fund a project with state money and
    shave-off years of bureaucratic foot-dragging by the litigation-averse, Federal
    Highway Administration.  However, it will run right back into a logjam
    with the US Army Corps of Engineers, if the State of Georgia doesn’t apply
    due-diligence under it-own laws, when attempting to secure Clean Water
    Act authorization for impacts to waters from which the entire public
    derives a benefit.
    As for Highwayman’s myopic
    argument about the benefits of GEPA conveying to engineering and
    archaeology consultants, he’s right!  The benefits
    of GDOT’s due diligence when expending scarce public funds does extend to
    engineers and archaeologists.  It also extends to doctors, lawyers,
    teachers, nurses, fast-food workers, cashiers, school systems (both public and
    private), public safety officials, children, grandparents, me, you, and –
    yes – even Highwayman. 
    You see in our Republic, folks like
    Highwayman (as well as Mr. Beach) seem to have forgotten one glaring
    truth: well-built and maintained roads, while they are a significant means to
    sustaining and improving our quality of life, are NOT the golden calf.
    Nor should they ever be placed before the public as having priority over the
    social, cultural, and environmental resources that place us among the best
    states in a great nation.Report

    Reply
  7. Lunaville says:

    Thank G-d our legislators continue to stand against any form of rail, mass transit, or a statewide mass transit system clinging to cutting edge 1950’s technology and innovations. I am unconcerned about these historical sights and look forward to the day when all of Georgia has been paved with glorious asphalt as far as the eye can see.Report

    Reply

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