by Kyle Wingfield
Throughout Georgia's months-long transportation debate, state leaders kept one eye -- and often one wagging finger -- pointed several hundred miles to the northeast.
Federal money in recent years made up about half of the state's transportation budget, but lately the numbers have been shrinking. An oft-invoked justification for increasing Georgia's funding for roads and bridges was to reduce our dependency on Washington, which has grown unpredictable as its spending outstrips gas-tax revenues by billions of dollars a year.
A short-term extension of the current highway funding measure, set to expire May 31, seems all but certain: The issue is caught up in House and Senate efforts to reform the tax code more broadly. So the question I posed to three Republican members of Georgia's congressional delegation this week is what a longer-term solution might look like, whenever it comes.
"Well, the long-term solution is not raising taxes, and the long-term solution is not continuing a system that doesn't work," began Sen. Johnny Isakson. "It's obvious you need a reform for the entire system in which you raise revenue for the roads. User fees should be a principle underlying that reform.
"My guiding principle is the (highway) trust fund ought to fund the road construction that you're doing, and if you're doing more road construction than it will fund, you ought not to be borrowing the money from China."
The idea that Congress should play a role in infrastructure is "a fairly bipartisan view," said Rep. Tom Price of Roswell, who chairs the House budget committee. How to pay for it is a different matter.
"The resources are there if we prioritize correctly," Price insisted. "What that means is we've got to get the federal government out of what it ought not to be doing to do the things the federal government ought to be doing."
Congress needs to set priorities within transportation spending, said Rep. Rob Woodall, who represents parts of Gwinnett and Forsyth counties and serves on the House transportation committee. He said his constituents tell him they want the federal government to focus on things like interstates and let local communities deal with sidewalks.
"It's not that folks don't want to build and invest, and it's not that they don't want to pay their fair share," Woodall said, citing last fall's approval of $200 million in infrastructure bonds by voters in deeply conservative Forsyth County. "They just don't want to see their dollars wasted, and who can blame them for that?"
Woodall didn't rule out federal spending on local mass transit systems, but he would limit federal help to those transit projects that are certain to relieve traffic congestion.
"Are we spending federal dollars to build streetcars across this country? Yes," he said. "Is that doing anything to solve congestion in national corridors? No."
All three said transportation is one of the voter concerns that hits closest to home.
"We've had probably the best roads in the Southeast," Isakson said of Georgia. "Some of those roads are deteriorating now faster than they used to, because there's not enough money to go around. And you're hearing that from constituents -- my wife being one of them. Potholes are her pet peeve."