Feds set to OK ambitious highway plan, but will there be enough money?

Federal Highway Administration officials say they are set to approve the state's transportation plan, a massive $5.4 billion catalog of projects aimed at clearing up metro Atlanta's gridlock and polluted air.

The problem is, more than half of the projects listed in the plan probably won't get funded.

Emily Tate, the FHA official who oversees Atlanta's transportation planning, says the plan will get the green light, possibly by the end of this week.

Some of the projects listed in the plan are HOV lanes, express buses and the Northern Arc. Except for that last one, those steps are expected to help improve traffic flow.

Right now, $2.8 billion worth of projects — more than half the plan's budget — is contingent on a bonding plan conceived by Gov. Roy Barnes. He wanted to expedite the construction of about 20 years' worth of road projects by selling bonds backed by future federal transportation dollars.

That would have worked fine if Barnes had won re-election, but he didn't; Sonny Perdue beat him. And a new sheriff in town means a new way of doing business. Perdue couldn't be reached for comment, and his aides wouldn't comment on the transportation plan; with a plateful of other urgent issues, the governor-elect apparently isn't prepared to take a position on this one yet.

But Perdue has said in the past he's no fan of these types of bonds, worried that they'd lock up future federal transportation dollars for the next 25 years. He's said he'll use such bonds sparingly, if at all.

The feds, however, aren't taking that into consideration.

"We take things as they come in terms of the fact that the governor-elect is still the governor-elect. He's not actually the governor yet," Tate says. "Right now, when we make our determination, we'll use what information is available to us at this time. So, at this time the bond program still exists."

What will happen if Perdue sticks to his guns and says no to the bonding plan? Most likely, Georgia will have on its hands an enormous paper tiger — an ambitious plan for unclogging roads and cleaning air, but no money with which to accomplish those goals.

"Any reasonable person looking at the whole set of projects in there would say, 'Well, you're not going to be able to build it all, so it can't be approved. It's not fiscally balanced,'" says Bryan Hager, the Sierra Club's transportation guru. "But in the world of transportation, and with the powerful highway interests, they probably want to approve this thing so they could then pick and choose a few projects and build them."

The good news, sort of, is that by going forward with the plan, the region is so far successfully skirting another road building freeze.

The state must have a new plan in place by next July, or will face a "conformity lapse" — that is, all federal road dollars coming into metro Atlanta would come to a screeching halt. The last time the federal government cut off metro Atlanta's road building money, the local economy lost out on $180 million and suffered a loss of 2,000 jobs. Projects meant to relieve clogged roadways were put on hold for more than two years. As the region's population swelled, traffic congestion thickened and idling cars and trucks spewed emissions that form ozone smog.

It appears likely that won't happen this time since the transportation plan has cleared this final bureaucratic hurdle.

State transportation officials acknowledge that the plan didn't account for the possibility of a new administration.

"A lot of what we do changes based on political wins, and [Perdue's victory] was obviously a major change that probably a lot of people didn't give a lot of serious thought too," says David Haynes, who, as senior principal planner for the Atlanta Regional Commission, oversees development of the transportation plan.

The ARC approved the plan in October, before Barnes was defeated and before the funding scheme was called into question. But the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority did so afterward, on Nov. 13.

GRTA, the super agency Barnes created in 1999 to solve the region's transportation woes, has the final state word on transportation planning. The GRTA board was the last hurdle before the transportation plan was sent on to the feds, and the board could have rejected the plan and sent it back to the ARC for a tinkering or a more comprehensive revision.

Eric Hovdesven was the only GRTA board member to vote against the plan.

"I think if we had objectively discussed the facts at the board meeting that others may have also voted no. Regardless, I voted no because I think the rush to [pass the plan] resulted in something that is far from perfect and far from implementable," Hovdesven says. "When all is said and done, I'm afraid we will have just bought more time without really confronting the problems of cowboy growth. The region subsidizes and directs growth with transportation spending decisions. If the spending plan is fiction, then how do I know what will actually get built out of the plan and what the consequences will be?"

Even if Perdue does agree to the bonding scheme, the idea faces other problems. Next month, the state Supreme Court is expected to rule on a lawsuit filed by former state Attorney General Michael Bowers. Bowers says the scheme is unconstitutional because the Georgia constitution outlaws state agencies from entering into contracts with state authorities that call for paying off the authority's debts.

Bowers contends that's exactly what happened when the State Road and Tollway Authority and Georgia Department of Transportation worked together to issue $822 million in bonds. If the court sided with Bowers, the bonding plan would be scrapped and so would the transportation projects linked to the bonds.