Politicians spar over priorities as infrastructure spending booms

Democrats and Republicans are debating how to spend some of the federal highway money in the bipartisan infrastructure packages that Congress approved in the fall. ( File photo by John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

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Democrats and Republicans are debating how to spend some of the federal highway money in the bipartisan infrastructure packages that Congress approved in the fall. ( File photo by John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

A national debate over transportation priorities is playing out in Georgia as public officials decide how to spend billions of dollars in federal infrastructure money.

The Biden administration want states to spend highway construction funds on maintaining existing roads instead of building new ones. The administration and Democrats in Congress also want some of the highway money to be spent on public transportation and other initiatives to address climate change and reduce reliance on automobile commuting.

“It’s past time for Georgia to begin to look at moving people in ways that supplement the automobile,” said U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia. “We should be building for people and not for cars.”

Republicans in Georgia and elsewhere are pushing back, saying states should be free to improve their transportation networks as they see fit. They say there’s still plenty of need for new and bigger highways, and diverting money to other priorities would be a mistake.

“What the Biden administration is trying to do here is use this money that they describe as being for infrastructure for political gain and for their political priorities,” said U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler. “I would describe it as being a bait and switch.”

The Democrats’ ability to dictate how states spend the highway money is limited by federal law. But the Biden administration has signaled its intent to craft regulations that will favor its priorities. And the debate likely will continue amid the biggest infrastructure spending binge in decades.

Congress approved the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill in the fall. It includes money for everything from ports and airports to broadband internet and electric-vehicle charging stations.

ExploreWhat’s in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill for Georgia

The money Georgia will receive includes $1.4 billion for public transportation over five years, $8.9 billion for roads and $225 million for bridges.

Much of the highway money is distributed based on formulas that account for each state’s number of highway lane miles and other factors. Though there are some restrictions, the states generally have flexibility to spend the money as they see fit.

Democrats have made it clear how they think states should spend the highway money. In December, the Biden administration released guidance suggesting states spend highway funds on maintaining existing roads instead of expanding them or building new ones. The administration also suggested states use some of the highway money for public transportation — not just the money already designated for transit.

Georgia Democrats in Congress have echoed those priorities. In January, they asked the Georgia Department of Transportation to spend hundreds of millions of federal highway funds on public transportation.

“Across our state, local jurisdictions and transit agencies are raising revenue to maintain, operate and expand public transit,” the lawmakers wrote. “Without the necessary support from GDOT, our local communities face a disproportionate burden raising needed funds for public transit infrastructure.”

Brian Gist, a transportation attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said it makes sense for Georgia to invest more in transit and on maintaining existing roads. He said building new highway lanes doesn’t solve traffic problems in the long run — they encourage development and fill up with traffic within a few years.

“We’ve overinvested in roads and underinvested in transit, and there are ways to begin correcting that,” Gist said.

Some Republicans have bristled at the Democrats’ priorities. In a January letter to President Joe Biden, 16 Republican governors — including Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp — urged the administration to “draft regulations and guidance that defer to the states and confer maximum regulatory flexibility.”

GDOT has also pushed back. In a written response to the congressional Democrats’ letter, the agency noted it has designated nearly $504 million in highway funds for transit over the past decade. It also cited its efforts to establish bus rapid transit on the top end of the Perimeter and Ga. 400.

GDOT officials declined to comment on the Democrats’ letter or the agency’s response.

David Moellering, president of the Georgia Highway Contractors Association, said it would be shortsighted to preclude spending federal highway money on new lanes. He said new lanes are needed to accommodate bus rapid transit, as well as increased truck traffic.

Seth Millican, executive director of the Georgia Transportation Alliance, supports spending on roads and transit. But he said the coronavirus pandemic has changed travel patterns — increasing freight traffic and decreasing transit ridership.

Millican said transit is still critical. But he said state transportation officials are best positioned to balance road and transit funding.

“It’s absolutely something we should be debating,” Millican said. “But the decision should be made by these guys here in Georgia.”