By Jim Thompson
The five-year transportation bill signed into law in December by President Barack Obama after getting bipartisan support in Congress is notable for being the first transportation bill enacted since the 1990s, Georgia Republican Rep. Rob Woodall told a small group gathered Wednesday at the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce for a transportation forum.
But, said Woodall, who represents an eastern metropolitan Atlanta district, the $305 billion the bill apportions among the 50 states isn't a particularly noteworthy expenditure in terms of the country's transportation needs.
"It's not a transformational investment in transportation infrastructure," he said. "This is maintenance of effort."
Georgia is slated to receive a total of $6.8 billion in federal funding through the 2020 fiscal year as a result of the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, according to Woodall. That allocation ranks Georgia eighth in the nation in terms of FAST Act funding, he said.
Beyond the allocation of transportation dollars, the FAST Act also institutes some transportation policy initiatives, according to Woodall. One provision of the bill allows states to take over the environmental review process for transportation projects receiving federal dollars, he said, adding Georgia is looking into exercising that option.
Also, Woodall noted, the FAST Act leaves intact a federal policy of steering 20 percent of transportation funding to mass transit options. Public transit is, Woodall said, "probably the most contentious area" in congressional discussions of transportation funding, largely because many members of Congress represent areas where public transit is not among the available transportation alternatives.
It's possible, though, there will be increased federal attention to public transit in the future, with two demographic groups -- the elderly and young "millennials" born around the turn of the century -- opting for it over roads and cars, Woodall suggested.
With those two groups, Woodall said, "You've got a voting majority in this country to continue this conversation."
Woodall was not, however, particularly enthusiastic about federal funding of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, suggesting at one point the country should "get out of the federal business of funding bike trails."
As an alternative, Woodall suggested the federal government could fund some pilot projects to test the feasibility of such projects, and if they are found workable, local governments could carry most or all of the financial burden for those initiatives.
Woodall was also skeptical of the utility of heavy rail as a commuting option, given the difficulty of trying to work with freight railroads to share their infrastructure with passenger traffic.
As a general rule, Woodall suggested, new projects involving alternative transportation such as rail, bicycles or pedestrian improvements need "to be wildly successful" for such projects to continue to attract federal dollars across the country.
A major issue with transportation funding, Woodall said, is the declining efficacy of the 18.4-cent federal gas tax. Those revenues have been declining as people have begun driving more efficient cars and using public transit more regularly, he pointed out in his presentation. And, he added, the real value of the gas tax today is equivalent to just 11.2 cents compared to 1993, when it was at 18.4 cents.
Part of the FAST Act, according to Woodall's presentation, will allow states to experiment with other mechanisms than a tax on gasoline -- such as, perhaps, a tax on vehicle miles traveled -- to raise transportation funding.