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Some hiccups expected in rollout of federal infrastructure spending bill
The bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure spending bill Congress passed early this month promises massive investments in Georgia highways and bridges, public transit, electric-vehicle charging stations and broadband deployment.
But some of the infrastructure improvements the legislation will help fund will come sooner than others.
“We know there are projects there that can start being built,” said Chris Clark, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. “[But] some of this is going to require the federal government to expedite the permitting process.”
The U.S. House of Representatives gave final passage to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Nov. 5, and President Joe Biden is expected to sign it into law on Monday. Under the bill, which remained in the same form as when the U.S. Senate passed it in August, Georgia will receive:
- $8.9 billion to repair and rebuild roads and highways.
- $1.4 billion for public transit.
- $913 million for water projects.
- $619 million for airport improvements.
- $225 million to repair and replace bridges.
- $135 million to expand the state’s network of electric-vehicle charging stations.
- $100 million for broadband deployment.
“The bipartisan infrastructure deal will touch every corner of the Peach State,” U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, said this week. “[It] is going to have an unprecedented impact on Georgia’s economy.”
Georgia’s roads and highways are in better shape than those in a lot of other states, due to the region’s milder weather but also thanks to transportation funding legislation the General Assembly passed in 2015 that provides about $900 million a year.
Only 2% of the state’s roads and bridges are rated in poor condition, Meg Pirkle, chief engineer for the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), told the Georgia House Transportation Committee early this month.
However, the average bridge in Georgia is more than 42 years old, while 40% are 50 or older, Pirkle said.
“Even with good maintenance, bridges that have reached their useful life need to be replaced,” she said.
Clark said the state has laid the groundwork to move quickly on some of the projects the infrastructure bill will help fund.
A study committee in the General Assembly began meeting this year to look for ways to pay for needed improvements at airports across Georgia to bolster the state’s aviation industry.
Last summer, Gov. Brian Kemp announced the formation of a task force aimed at strengthening Georgia’s status as a leader in the electric mobility industry.
A commission of state lawmakers and logistics industry executives has been exploring what the state can do to ease the movement of freight through Georgia, an issue that has grown more pressing in recent months due to supply-chain disruptions.
“We’ve got a good list of projects,” Clark said. “We know where they need to go.”
Tejas Kotek, chairman of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club’s Transportation Committee, said the infrastructure bill represents the largest investment in public transit since the 1970s.
Georgia Commissioner of Transportation Russell McMurry said the state will see a 30% increase in federal transit funding.
MARTA will receive the largest share of the transit money headed to Georgia since it’s by far the state’s largest transit agency.
But Kotek said smaller transit systems across Georgia also will be able to apply for capital investment grants through a new initiative included in the infrastructure legislation.
Kotek said the federal funds earmarked to build more electric-vehicle charging stations should help revive demand for EVs in Georgia, which has flattened out since the General Assembly eliminated a state tax credit on EV sales in 2015.
The repeal’s supporters argued that EVs had become so popular the incentive of a tax credit was no longer necessary. But Kotek said that reasoning was premature.
“In the next five years, federal and state subsidies might not be needed as much, but we’re still in that transitional period,” he said.
Georgia utilities have been aggressively rolling out broadband service to previously unserved communities across the state – largely rural – since the General Assembly passed legislation two years ago allowing electric membership cooperatives (EMCs) to deploy broadband.
Kevin Curtin, senior vice president of government relations for Georgia EMC, said the $42 billion included in the infrastructure bill for broadband projects nationwide will further help states close the “digital divide” between rural and urban communities. The bill is expected to extend broadband availability to at least 649,000 Georgians now without internet.
“It may serve as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure all Georgians have access to robust broadband service and help co-ops assist in meeting the needs of the communities they serve,” Curtin said.
While the new federal bill provides huge funding allocations for a variety of infrastructure needs, obstacles stand in the way of fulfilling those promises quickly.
Clark said Georgia is still suffering from a labor shortage, even with companies paying workers up to twice what they paid before the coronavirus pandemic struck the state.
“I don’t know that federal spending is going to alleviate that,” he said.
McMurry said procedural requirements mean funding the bill provides for some transportation programs will come before money for others.
“It is expected that the existing transportation formula programs will see the increased funding levels immediately,” McMurry wrote in an email to Capitol Beat. “New programs, formula or discretionary, will have to be developed by [the U.S. Department of Transportation], have public comment, and then be implemented.”
McMurry said the amount of increased infrastructure funding Georgia ultimately receives remains uncertain because of the rules governing the awarding of grants.
.”A significant portion of the overall funding increases in the [legislation] are in competitive grants, which are not guaranteed to any individual state,” he wrote. “GDOT and local governments will have to compete for current and newly established infrastructure grants along with other states.”
Shane Hix, spokesman for the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority (GEFA), said the U.S. Environmental Protection still must work through “program administration and funding allocation issues” before GEFA can be certain about the impact the additional funding will have on water system improvements in Georgia.
But once the kinks get ironed out, the bill promises to create an influx of new jobs.
Sandra Williams, executive director of the Atlanta North Georgia Labor Council, said the legislation is projected to generate about 2 million jobs per year nationwide during the coming decade.
“This is a major win for Georgia workers,” she said. “We’re going to see thousands of good-paying jobs reach Georgia.”
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.