Road work ahead

Very soon, a group of grandees tasked with parsing reams of data and debating themselves into a consensus solution to a perennial dilemma will report its findings.

No, I am not talking about the College Football Playoff committee.

I refer instead to the task force legislators created earlier this year to study ways to increase funding for Georgia’s transportation needs. If that sounds rather less exciting, just wait until the group’s recommendations hit.

These folks were told to be “big and bold.” Based on what I heard during — and on the sidelines of — a hearing they held Wednesday in Blue Ridge, that’s what they intend to do.

While we await the details of their recommendation, which House Speaker David Ralston told them Wednesday he would make “a priority” during the 2015 legislative session, it’s worth reviewing why “big and bold” is in order.

A graph prepared for a 2008 Georgia DOT report about the same subject (“Investing in Tomorrow’s Transportation Today,” or IT3) tells the tale of a state that has spent three decades falling behind on roads, rails and bridges.

From the early 1960s until the mid-’80s, our state and local transportation spending as a percentage of state GDP was consistently higher than the national average. Since then our population has continued to grow quickly, but our infrastructure funding hasn’t kept pace.

The result is what DOT Commissioner Keith Golden presented Wednesday as a massive backlog.

Over the next 20 years, Golden said, Georgia is projected to fall short of its list of “needs” by $29 billion. That means no money in the next two decades for alleviating bottlenecks, including both intersections of I-20 and I-285 as well as I-16 and I-75 in Macon. These choke points, and others, will only get worse with the increased freight traffic going to and from a deepened Savannah harbor.

More than a third of the $29 billion is deemed routine maintenance: $6.4 billion for roads, $5.5 billion for bridges.

Making matters worse, Congress has yet to come up with a long-term plan for federal highway funding. A solution from Washington won't be easy.

“They would have to raise the federal gas tax by 12 cents a gallon today” — from the current 18.4 cents a gallon — “just to keep (federal) funding at the current level,” Golden said.

Golden’s bottom line: We can’t rely on Washington to fulfill our needs.

A solution from Atlanta won’t be easy, either, even if the math is simple. Filling that $29 billion hole would mean doubling the DOT’s capital and routine maintenance expenditures from their $1.5 billion level in 2012. Two-thirds of that came from the feds; any new money will have to come from the state.

Again, that’s just to get the current system in better working order, not to build anything new.

If your first inclination is like mine, you wonder if the current spending is as efficient and effective as possible. And I’ve no doubt there’s room for improvement.

But consider the scale of the problem. Even if we could put half the current funding for capital and maintenance to better use, we’d still be short by hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

This is what making up for 30 years of neglect looks like. It’s a problem that didn’t begin with the GOP takeover in 2003, but nor have Republicans solved it. Yet.