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How Georgia’s 8-year-old infrastructure initiative is paying off
Six years ago, Georgia had more than 700 bridges in poor condition. Today, the state’s list of structurally deficient bridges has fallen to 239.
In fact, fewer than 2% of Georgia’s 15,022 bridges are classified as structurally deficient now — a feat that hasn’t gone unnoticed by those who track the condition of the nation’s 617,000 bridges. The number of bridges in poor condition dropped nearly 66% in just the last four years.
“That is very impressive to go from 441 [structurally deficient bridges] down to 239,” Alison Black, chief economist of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, told State Affairs. Black has tracked and written reports about U.S. bridges for a decade.
Georgia ranked 48th nationally in percent of structurally bad bridges and last among states where the percentage of the deck area — the surface on which vehicles drive — is structurally deficient, according to the association’s report released in August.
“This is a list [where] you want to be on the bottom,” Black said. “So that really indicates just looking at the data, that this has been ... maybe a priority might not be the right word. Again, I don't want to speak for the [Georgia] DOT [Department of Transportation] but they have definitely put resources towards addressing this issue in the state.”
So what’s behind Georgia’s performance?
In July 2015, state lawmakers launched an innovative transportation funding initiative. Then-Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law the Transportation Funding Act to provide money to repair, improve and expand Georgia’s infrastructure, including bridges. The state has allocated “another $1 billion a year” for the nation’s 10th largest infrastructure network through proceeds raised from state gas taxes.
“Gov. Deal, and our current administration as well, was firm that bridges are important, whether they're local or state-owned, and we are going to invest in bridges,” Meg Pirkle, chief engineer at the Georgia Department of Transportation, told State Affairs. “So starting in 2016, we increased our spend on bridges, I would say times three or four every year and we are maintaining that.”
Lorenzo Parks uses the bridge that crosses Snapfinger Creek about twice a month, yet he had no idea that it’s among the top 10 most traveled and structurally deficient bridges in Georgia.
“People need to be better informed about the situation, maybe that way we can share our concerns,” the 70-year-old Decatur resident said recently while gassing up his black Silverado Chevy pickup at a gas station across from the bridge.
“Poor condition doesn't mean they [the bridges] are dangerous. It just means that there's things that need to be fixed,”Pirkle said.
Why It Matters
All bridges — state and local — are inspected every other year, she said.
“If they need attention, we provide the correct attention. We’re going to close the bridge if it needs to be closed. If it needs maintenance, we're going to do the maintenance and if it needs to be replaced, we put it on the list for replacement,” Pirkle said. “So it's not like I worry at night that people are driving over a bridge that has a poor rating because I know that it's safe.”
Currently, there are 49 bridges in Georgia that are closed, only one is owned by the state.The rest are owned by local governments.
“For the most part, a lot of our bridges are in the good and fair state,” State Bridge Engineer Donn Digamon told State Affairs.
In addition to state money, Georgia gets a total of $225 million in federal bridge formula money through 2025. The money comes from the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Pres. Biden signed into law in 2021 to invest in roads, bridges, railroads and broadband internet.
While states have access to $10.6 billion in federal infrastructure money, only 30% of that money has been committed to 2,060 bridge projects nationwide as of June. Georgia, however, already has committed all of its available $90 million federal infrastructure money to 54 projects.
The Georgia Department of Transportation still has work — and challenges — ahead.
Georgia has 13,740 bridges in need of some sort of repair, up slightly from the 13,676 bridges that needed work in 2019, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association’s report which is based on findings from the Federal Highway Administration’s National Bridge Inventory.
Complicating matters: Bridges in some parts of the state are now handling trucks carrying heavier loads.
State lawmakers passed a bill in March allowing trucks in the agriculture and forestry industries to carry heavier loads. Gov. Kemp signed HB 189 on May 5. The new law allows trucks in those industries to haul up to 88,000 pounds, up from 84,000 pounds. The trucks can travel up to 150 miles from the farm or processing plant where the load originated. The law is good through June 2025, giving lawmakers time to reach a permanent compromise.
State officials told lawmakers earlier this year that more than 700 bridges in Georgia can’t handle the increased weight limits. Those bridges include 306 state-owned bridges and 427 local bridges. The state has since posted weight limits on 733 bridges, Digamon said.
“We do know that these heavier weights, or what we call axle weights, the individual axles just over time — when you give anything time — will accelerate the pace of deterioration,” he added.
The heavier weight is most likely to be a problem in rural areas. More than half of all truck trips in Georgia pass through rural areas at some point during their journey, according to the Georgia Chamber of Commerce Third Quarter report released earlier this month.
Weight-posted bridges require detours that are nearly 35% longer, on average, in rural areas than posted bridges in metro Atlanta, the report noted. Declining bridge conditions pose a serious mobility issue for motorists and railways. Some 13% of bridges in rural areas are posted with weight restrictions compared to 7% in metro atlanta
“This is causing connectivity issues in rural Georgia,” the report said.
Nationally, 1 in 3 bridges need to be replaced or repaired, even as the country’s share of bridges in poor condition continues to slowly improve, the report said. At that current rate, it would take 75 years to fix all of the bridges that need work, the report noted.
“We really increased our spending on bridges because Georgia is a growing state and keeping our bridges in good health is so important for not just the interstates but for agriculture and growth in and around the ports and everything,” Pirkle said. “I mean, it can really restrict travel if you have restrictions on bridges.”
Earlier this year, national auto insurance comparison company QuoteWizard ranked Georgia as having the best infrastructure in the nation. As a result, Georgians have the fifth-cheapest driving costs in the country, paying about $375 a year.
“The goal is always to be providing the biggest bang for the buck for the taxpayer because this is all taxpayer money.” Digamon said. “So, I think we're doing a fairly good job at this point for the taxpayer of Georgia.”
GEORGIA BRIDGES: BY THE NUMBERS
State and local bridges inspected annually: 8,824
State-owned bridges repaired annually: 46
Average age of a bridge in Georgia: 46.3
State-owned bridges repaired so far this year: 142
Bridges in good condition: 77.7%
Bridges in fair condition: 21.3%
Bridges in poor condition: 239 or 1%
Bridges currently closed: 49 – 1 state-owned; the rest are local government-owned
Bridge replacement and construction projects: 154
Total cost of those projects: $821 million
Source: Georgia Department of Transportation Accountability and Investment Report, Fiscal Year 2022 and National Bridge Inventory, Georgia data, 2023.
A study committee of Georgia senators took a decisive step Tuesday toward ending a longstanding and contentious law that regulates how and where new medical facilities are located in the state.
The committee’s decision centers on the 44-year-old Certificate of Need law. It was created to control health care costs and cut down on duplication of services and unnecessary expansions. It determines when, where and if hospitals need to be built. Opponents have said the law prevents competition and enables big hospitals to have a monopoly, often shutting out small and private medical outlets.
On Tuesday, the Senate Study Committee on Certificate of Need Reform effectively said the law needs to be repealed. The committee approved, in a 6-2 vote, nine recommendations.
“Based upon the testimony, research presented, and information received, the Study Committee on Certificate of Need Reform has found that the problem Georgia’s CON law was intended to combat no longer exists,” the report said.
However, the head of the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals said Tuesday that repealing the law would be a bad idea.
“It would have a devastating financial impact on hospitals and the quality and access to health care,” Monty Veazey, the alliance’s chief executive, told State Affairs.
Veazey said he has not seen the recommendations yet but his organization has sent its own set of recommendations to the senate and house study committees.
“We believe that the certificate of need really does need some modernization and we look forward to working with the committee to work through those recommendations and see if we can reach a compromise position during the upcoming legislative session,” Veazey said. “We still want to see what the House committee recommends before moving forward.”
Here’s what the senate study committee recommends, according to a draft:
- Repeal CON requirements for obstetrics services, neonatal intensive care, birth centers and all services related to maternal and neonatal care across Georgia.
- End requirements for hospital-based CON on Jan. 1, 2025.
- Reform CON laws to eliminate CON review for new and expanded inpatient psychiatric services and beds that serve Medicaid patients and the uninsured.
- Repeal all cost expenditure triggers for CON.
- All medical and surgery specialties should be considered a single specialty, including cardiology and general surgery.
- Multi-specialty centers should be allowed, particularly in rural areas.
- Remove CON for hospital bed expansion.
- Revise freestanding emergency department requirements such that they must be within 35 miles of an affiliated hospital.
- Remove CON for research centers.
The committee will present its recommendations to the Georgia General Assembly when it reconvenes in January.
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ATLANTA — The first step in the 2023 electoral redistricting process occurred Monday when Sen. Shelly Echols, R-Gainesville, chair of the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, released a draft proposal of new Senate district maps.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Steve Jones ordered Georgia to redraw its state House, Senate and congressional district maps, adopted in 2021 by a majority-Republican-led Legislature, after finding they violated the Votings Rights Act by diluting the power of Black voters. The Georgia General Assembly is charged with submitting new maps to comply with Jones’ order by Dec. 8, and will be meeting in an eight-day special legislative session to do so, starting on Wednesday.
The proposed Senate maps would create two Black-majority voting districts while eliminating two white majority districts in metro Atlanta now represented by Democrats. The districts of state Sen. Elena Parent, chair of the Senate Democratic caucus, and Democratic Sen. Jason Esteves, a freshman, would become majority-Black if the redrawn maps make it through the redistricting process, a change that could invite considerably more primary challenges.
The proposed maps do not significantly alter the district lines for Sen. Valencia Seay, D-Riverdale, and Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, whose districts Jones ruled did not comply with the Voting Rights Act. It will be up to Jones to decide if the new maps pass muster.
As it stands, the proposed Senate map will leave Republicans with a 33-23 advantage in the Senate.
On Wednesday legislators will plunge into their redistricting work during a special session at the Capitol. In addition to the state Senate maps, lawmakers must also redraw electoral maps to create Black majorities in one additional congressional district in west-metro Atlanta, and in five additional state House districts in Atlanta and the Macon-Bibb County area.
The proposed Senate maps (and all proposed maps to be submitted by legislators) are available on the Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office’s website. Written comments can be submitted (and viewed) by the public through the portal available on the Georgia General Assembly website. Most of the reapportionment and redistricting committee’s hearings are open to the public; the daily legislative schedule is available here.
“The committee encourages public participation and values the input of the community in this vital democratic process,” Echols said in a statement released on Monday.
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