GDOT official: ‘We’re all rowing together’

The new leadership team at the Georgia Department of Transportation came to the newspaper’s office last week and announced, as new leadership teams often do, that it’s a new era, and that there’s an unprecedented spirit of collaboration that will pull the state out of the ditch regarding highway maintenance and traffic congestion. (Georgia ranks 49th in the nation in per capita transportation spending.)

“For the first time in a long time, you’ve got a commissioner, a DOT board, the governor, the planning director — everybody’s on the same page, all working together,” said Jay Roberts, GDOT’s new planning director, appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal this spring.

They even acknowledged the important role played by MARTA.

“You don’t see that animosity that’s been there a little bit in the past,” Roberts added. “We’re not rowing against each other any more. We’re all rowing together, and I think that’s helping to move the ship forward.”

If so, Roberts has played a key part. As state representative from Ocilla, he led the passage of House Bill 170, the Transportation Funding Act of 2015, which is expected to boost revenue, adding nearly $1 billion annually through a gas tax hike and other fees. It also allows counties to consider new taxes — so-called mini-TSPLOSTs — for transportation improvements.

Some governments, Roberts said, are weighing ballot measures for November 2016.

Fulton County is one of them, county Chairman John Eaves told an Editorial Board meeting Monday at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (Metro Atlanta counties can go to voters after July 1, 2016; all other counties after July 1, 2017.)

“There are a lot of local governments out there trying to feel the temperature and see if it’s really going to be beneficial to them or not,” Roberts said. “I do believe that you’re going to see a lot of counties, cities as well, look at it and evaluate it. And they’re going to take a hard look. We encourage that.”

New transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry said that with more state money to use on roads, coupled with less dependency on federal funding, GDOT can accelerate the timetable for construction by avoiding long waits for federal environmental approval. State environmental laws are still enforced, but in some cases, they require about half the review time.

“We’ve depended on the federal dollar for decades,” McMurry said. “This really gives us a lot more ability to be agile and move some bigger things quicker, we hope.”

McMurry said the state has been focusing on repairs and, where possible, expansion, before any new money rolls in.

“Let’s not lose sight of where we are today,” he said. “We have a billion dollars in managed lanes under construction or under contract, that being the Northwest Corridor (and) I-75 South, and just last month, we did a project to add new lanes on I-85 North up in Gwinnett County. That’s 50 miles of managed lanes. That’s huge. When I-75 South opens (in January 2017), I really feel like people are going to say, ‘Give me more of that. I’ve got a barrier. I feel safe. I’m zipping by other people.’”

Things might look brighter if Congress gets its act together on long-term federal transportation funding. The current short-term extension — the third this year — expires at the end of October. “It’s hard to go forward if you don’t know you’re going to get reimbursed,” McMurry said. “When we sign the contract with a highway contractor … we have to put the money in the bank to back up the contract and get reimbursed by the federal government as we incur the expenses. It’s really slowed down our program.”

What’s not slowing down — in fact, it’s accelerating with alarming speed — is the rate of highway fatalities in Georgia this year, now nearing 800, a pace nearly 100 higher than last year. If you follow GDOT on Twitter, you know the department is hammering home awareness of the problem, directing the message to tech-savvy drivers who may fall victim to their own multi-tasking.

McMurry explained that half the deadly crashes are single-vehicle accidents, “people running off the road and killing themselves.” While early data is inconclusive, “we have to think that it’s distracted driving” — motorists texting on cell phones while operating a vehicle, which is illegal. “You can’t conclusively say, because we get data off police reports, (and) sometimes that’s not determined until post-investigation and they go back and pull phone records. It’s really concerning.”

The commissioner asked the media for help, suggesting the awful trend was off the latter’s radar. With an average of 100 deaths a month, Georgia is on track for 1,200 or more fatalities in 2015 — which, according to GDOT’s website, would mark the first increase in annual fatalities in nine years.

“If this was some kind of a cold or flu strain,” he said, “you guys would have it in a headline, ‘800 people dead in Georgia.’”