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Georgia road work could suffer in coronavirus recession

Gas and sales tax receipts that pay for road construction could plummet amid a recession. (Johnny Crawford, AJC)
Gas and sales tax receipts that pay for road construction could plummet amid a recession. (Johnny Crawford, AJC)

Credit: Johnny Crawford

Credit: Johnny Crawford

Road construction continues across Georgia even as many government functions have been diminished or gone dormant. But metro Atlanta transportation officials worry that a coronavirus recession could put road work on hold in the months and years ahead.

On Friday, the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Transportation Coordinating Committee – composed of local officials from across the metro area – got a first glimpse at some statistics that do not bode well for future road construction.

With many people sheltering in place, vehicle miles traveled across Georgia are down 62 percent since March 20. That means a big drop in gasoline sales – and in future gas taxes that support state and federal transportation spending.

And with many restaurants, retailers and other businesses shut down, sales tax receipts – a big source of revenue for local road work – also will take a hit.

“We should all expect that, when March and April sales tax receipts become known, we’re going to experience some significant declines in revenues that we use to support our transportation projects,” John Orr, who manages the ARC’s transportation programs, told the committee.

“We don’t know the magnitude of what that will be, precisely,” Orr said. “But it will certainly be very steep.”

Road work currently under way shouldn’t be affected. But future work could be curtailed – and the effect may not be short-lived. One precedent: Orr said it took nearly seven years for vehicle miles traveled to reach pre-recession levels after the Great Recession of 2008.

Local officials hope the federal government will step in with an infrastructure spending bill – something that's been discussed since the beginning of the Trump administration but has not materialized.

So far, the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic has not included aid for general state and local government operations. But ARC officials say Congress could begin working on an infrastructure bill this summer.

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