Budget cuts could mean more litter, weeds along Georgia highways

Most road construction projects would be unaffected under a Georgia Department of Transportation budget for the coming year. (AJC FILE PHOTO)

Weeds and litter may be more plentiful along Georgia highways over the next year. But there will be plenty of orange construction barrels, too.

That was the gist of Thursday's Georgia Department of Transportation presentation to a Senate panel that is reviewing state agencies' plans for budget cuts amid an economic downturn brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

The leaders of the House and Senate budget committees and the Office of Planning and Budget sent letters to state agencies May 1 requesting plans to cut spending 14%. This week brought good news of sorts — the latest revenue estimates suggest cuts of only 11% will be needed.

Either way, GDOT’s major function — road construction — will not be slowed much.

Under a 14% cut, the agency would trim $296.9 million in 2021 spending. Much of that — more than $97 million — would come by delaying construction or right-of-way acquisition for half a dozen road projects, effectively pushing them into fiscal 2022 and beyond.

In metro Atlanta, that includes two Henry County projects. Letting the contract for construction on the widening of Ga. 20 from I-75 to Phillips Drive would be pushed back more than a year from May to July 2022. And most right-of-way purchases for widening Ga. 155 from I-75 to U.S. 23 would be pushed into 2022 and 2023 — a move GDOT says would not delay construction.

GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry told senators the agency’s approach would allow projects to keep moving forward. He said road projects that are already underway will not be affected by budget cuts.

“We’re trying to keep the projects pushing out the pipeline,” McMurry said.

GDOT would cut an additional $95.6 million in capital maintenance projects such as road resurfacing. It says the specific projects to be affected have not been determined, but they will be spread across the state.

The most noticeable cuts in the short term may come in routine maintenance, where GDOT would trim more than $48 million. That savings will come through less frequent litter collection and herbicide spraying. The agency also will reduce pavement striping statewide.

Much of the remaining cuts will fall on equipment, travel and other contracts. GDOT does not plan layoffs or furloughs.

Though GDOT is still working out the details, a cut of 11% instead of 14% would allow it to sink an extra $63.6 million into its budget — much of it for construction projects.