Money earmarked for Georgia local transportation projects stalled, could return

By: - August 16, 2021 1:00 am

The redesign of DeRenne Avenue in Savannah is one of several dozen Georgia transportation projects that could miss out on federal funding after the U.S. Senate removed the local district earmarks from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. The House’s package had included $20 million to help ease congestion at the DeRenne Avenue and Montgomery Street intersection and along the rest of a commercial boulevard that serves as the main corridor to a military base, several public schools and two hospitals. Google Maps

Plans to widen and realign an intersection near Albany State University were poised to move forward without the typical transportation agency scorecard treatment that incorporates traffic counts and other factors to help determine if a project gets funded.

But what seemed like a federal guarantee of $2.5 million for the Sands Drive and Radium Springs project stalled as the U.S. Senate seized the momentum on infrastructure legislation with the U.S. Senate’s $1.2 trillion package passed this week.

The return of Congressional earmarks could still reemerge this year and that could deliver $138 million for Georgia projects nominated by Georgia lawmakers in the U.S. House’s comprehensive infrastructure package.

Earmarked spending is directed at specific projects sponsored by members of Congress. Congress shelved that targeted spending for a decade in part because of criticisms the earmarked projects could avoid careful scrutiny.

Now questions remain whether 1,400-plus local transportation projects across the nation hand-picked by members of Congress will face a more challenging approval gauntlet to get completed. 

Albany Mayor Bo Dorough said expanding the intersection is a high priority since vehicle and foot traffic will rise with two new housing developments next to the university. It’s one of three Albany road projects to make the final cut out of $19 million worth of earmarks Rep. Sanford Bishop secured for his district that spans from Macon to Columbus and into southwest Georgia.

Dorough said the earmarks would go a long way to pay for the road work, but if that money doesn’t come through, he’ll try to raise the money another way.

Special sales taxes is one way for local governments to pay for road construction costs to supplement federal or state level.

“Assuming the earmarks are eliminated, that doesn’t mean the projects aren’t going to get funded,” Dorough said.

For the first time in a decade, congressional Democrats lifted restrictions this year on earmarks as negotiations began on the infrastructure plan that calls for $590 billion in new spending on public transit, roads and bridges, sewer, broadband expansion, and more.

With most Georgia Republican congressional members declining to submit earmarks, it meant the bulk of the 39 approved projects went to Democrats’ districts around metro Atlanta and in Bishop’s district.

Last week’s Senate infrastructure package approval doesn’t necessarily close the door on the earmarks designated for local transportation projects. But unless earmarks are restored in the final transportation package or added to another spending plan, local and state leaders might have to rely more on local funds or go through a more tedious process, requesting money directly from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Bishop said in a statement that the Senate’s bipartisan bill is a good first step and that he’ll continue advocating for the local earmarks on the House side.

“The Senate’s bipartisan bill only addresses a part of the country’s overall infrastructure and the projects needed to rehabilitate as well as modernize it,” he said.

“For example, it does not include projects in middle and southwest Georgia that I secured as part of the INVEST in America Act which the U.S. House adopted in July. However, I am continuing to work to include them in the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation process as Congress continues to address our remaining infrastructure needs.”

Georgia’s most expensive earmarked allocation — $20 million for one of Savannah’s busiest corridors — was nominated by Pooler Republican Rep. Buddy Carter. He later voted against President Joe Biden’s INVEST in America Act that included the Savannah project for not directing enough money for roads, bridges and ports.

The Savannah government has so far invested $20 million for designs, rights of way acquisitions and other preparations for the $60 million redesign of DeRenne Avenue through downtown.

The plans call for diverting vehicles off the interstate onto a new interchange, widening roadways, and a slew of other changes aimed to make it easier to access two hospitals, several public schools, and Hunter Army Airfield.

The congressional earmark would have covered 50% of the remaining construction costs and helped chances of securing other grants that would alleviate pressure on the city’s treasury, said Heath Lloyd, Savannah’s chief infrastructure and development officer.

“Right now, we are looking to use matching dollars from the City of Savannah’s coffers, but obviously, if we could get this federal money, it would go a long way to close that gap of $40 million for construction,” Lloyd said.

“It’s important to get that buy-in from Congress, but then also to get that buy-in from the state,” he said. “When it impacts an Army facility like Hunter Airfield, we believe those factors will give credence to this project beyond what some of our local challenges are.”

Among the earmarks the House proposed for metro Atlanta’s suburbs are a $5 million pedestrian bridge over Ga. 20 in Sugar Hill and $5 million for a new Gwinnett County bus line.

Other earmarked projects that could be resuscitated in new federal plans include a $2.3 million greenway project in Brookhaven and $14 million for safety improvements along Abbotts Bridge Road in Johns Creek.

Macon’s public transit system was earmarked to get $2.6 million while the Georgia Department of Transportation was in line for $2.6 million to replace a Randolph County bridge that carries heavy truck traffic.

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.

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