ATLANTA — A “fresh view from the private sector” and more legislative oversight are a study committee’s recommendations to guard against the mismanagement of funds that has dogged the Georgia Department of Transportation, said Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga.
In recommendations to be released today, the Joint Study Committee on Transportation Funding suggests the formation of a Transportation Oversight Committee in the General Assembly and requiring the DOT to partner with private firms to design at least 10 percent of projects in the next four years.
“We want to spend our tax dollars much more efficiently,” said Sen. Mullis, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and co-chairman of the study committee that met through the summer. “With legislative oversight, we can help derail any inefficiencies.”
The recommended “design build” concept requires private firms to submit a design with project bids and the department to accept bids based on design and not just on lowest cost, often saving money and shortening project time, Sen. Mullis said. The committee recommends using “competitive sealed bids” in the process.
The committee also recommends DOT institute “value engineering,” or exhaustive risk and cost assessments, to determine priorities on transportation projects.
Besides an oversight committee for general transportation issues, the study group urges required regular updates from DOT to the House and Senate transportation committees.
It also asks that a statewide transportation plan be drawn up that would be vetted by the new oversight committee and then put to a vote in the Legislature.
A “more active” review by legislators of DOT planning will help prevent empty funding promises for local projects, Sen. Mullis said.
“It’s been a traditional long-term problem with DOT,” said Sen. Mullis, adding he had confidence new DOT Commissioner Gena Abraham could work out some problems. “After we turn the big ship, it won’t be the case in the future.”
But for all the 19 recommendations of the committee, only ones proposed in legislation and passed into law will become reality.
“The legislation will be where the details are,” Sen. Mullis said, adding he expects most of the bills to be proposed by the end of the week.
Sen. Mullis said the most likely funding mechanism to pass this session would be a regional one through a state constitutional amendment to allow local governments to implement a special purpose local option sales tax specifically for regional transportation projects. The regulations on how regions could band together to vote on the projects would be worked out in the next legislative session, he said.
Another source of funds recommended is “urging” the U.S. Department of Transportation to return to Georgia projects all of the $1.3 billion Georgians pay in federal motor fuel taxes. Sen. Mullis said that in 2006, only 93 percent of those taxes were returned.
Sen. Mullis said the federal Highway Trust Fund is outdated and sinking into debt, so the committee encourages Georgia officials at the federal level to demand all that money go into Georgia — or urge the abolition of the federal Department of Transportation.
“We wanted to make a strong point,” he said. “We think we can do it ourselves anyway.”
Chris Riley, chief of staff for Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Ga., said getting any more of the federal money probably won’t happen before 2010, when Congress reauthorizes transportation funding.
In 2005, Rep. Deal was a leader in increasing the amount of money Georgia received to the 93 percent level, Mr. Riley said.
“We certainly made a step in the right direction,” he said.
Other study committee recommendations to be announced today include:
n Georgia DOT should conduct a study of a regional network of high occupancy toll lanes, in which driver riding alone could pay a fee to use a high occupancy vehicle lane.
n DOT should award contracts using the public-private method of construction and finance, including possibly, Sen. Mullis said, separate toll roads for large trucks through highly congested areas.
n Legislators should work with the Transit Planning Board to include more rapid-transit options for metro areas in a statewide transportation plan.