Georgia traffic, internet needs highlighted in Biden infrastructure plan

White House officials highlighted sluggish highway traffic, slow bus travel and spotty rural internet service in Georgia Monday as part of pitch to boost support for President Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure package.

The high-priced “America Jobs Plan,” which has not yet gained Congress’ approval, would take aim at road and bridge repairs to cut down on Georgia commute times that have increased nearly 11% over the past decade, according to a White House fact sheet of the issued Monday.

It would also seek to improve broadband connections in roughly 40% of Georgia where there is little or no internet access, increase housing supply for the state’s estimated 654,000 residents who struggle paying rent and contribute to the $12.5 billion needed to fix local drinking-water systems.

  • View the White House infrastructure fact sheet for Georgia here.

“The American Jobs Plan is an investment in America that will create millions of good jobs, rebuild our country’s infrastructure and position the United States to out-compete China,” read a White House news release sent Monday.

The infrastructure plan faces pushback from leading Republicans and some Democrats over its scope and proposals to fund projects by hiking the corporate tax rate. Democrats hold a majority in Congress with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote in the U.S. Senate.

State officials are “going to continue to monitor” congressional talks on the infrastructure package and potential benefits for Georgia, as well as impacts from increasing corporate taxes for transportation projects, said Josh Waller, director of policy and government affairs for the state Department of Transportation.

Calls to pass the plan come on the heels of recent approval for $1.9 trillion in COVID-19 pandemic aid, adding to last year’s $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

In Georgia, congressional leaders including Democratic U.S. Reps. Hank Johnson, Nikema Williams and Carolyn Bourdeaux have pushed the plan to shore up public transit and widen key roads in the clogged metro Atlanta area.

State transportation officials have budgeted around $2.6 billion this fiscal year and next through June 2022 for road, bridge and transit construction projects, including $10 million for broadband improvement in rural and underserved areas.

Additionally, work has been underway since 2016 to widen and reconstruct several stretches of major highways and interchanges in metro Atlanta, Macon and Savannah areas including on I-285, I-85, I-75 and I-10. Those projects are scheduled for completion between next year and 2032.

Trade settlement saves 2,600 jobs slated for Georgia electric vehicle battery plants

ATLANTA – Two South Korean electric vehicle battery manufacturers have reached an 11th-hour settlement to a trade dispute that was threatening an estimated 2,600 jobs in Georgia.

SK Innovation, which is planning to build a pair of plants in Jackson County, will pay LG Energy Solutions $1.8 billion in exchange for dropping a lawsuit before the International Trade Commission (ITC). LG Energy had accused SK of stealing trade secrets and destroying documents.

The Biden administration was facing a Sunday deadline to overturn an ITC ruling favorable to LG that would have hampered SK’s ability to operate plants in the U.S.

“This settlement agreement is a win for American workers and the American auto industry,” President Joe Biden said Sunday. “A key part of my plan to Build Back Better is to have the electric vehicles and batteries of the future built here in America, all across America, by American workers.

“Today’s settlement is a positive step in that direction, which will bring some welcome relief to workers in Georgia and new opportunity for workers across the country.”

“The announcement of a settlement between SK innovation and LG Energy Solution is fantastic news for northeast Georgia and our state’s growing electric vehicle industry,” Gov. Brian Kemp added. “Our state attracted this massive $2.6 billion investment because of Georgia’s pro-growth leadership, and I have personally participated in countless meetings, calls, and other conversations to make sure this project and the 2,600 expected jobs continued to move forward.”

Helping the two companies reach a settlement was a bipartisan effort. U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., intervened personally to bring the parties to the table to work out an agreement, according to a statement from Ossoff’s office.

“When the future of the plant was in jeopardy, Senator Ossoff provided leadership and helped us achieve a path forward,” SK Innovation President and CEO Jun Kim said “This successful outcome will lead to billions more in investment in Georgia. The state is now positioned to be the nation’s leader in electric vehicle battery production.”

The two plants, representing a $2.6 billion investment, will employ 1,000 workers by the end of this year. When fully ramped up in 2024, the plants will produce batteries for 300,000 electric vehicles per year, primarily for Ford and Volkswagen.

Georgia tax revenues show modest March increase after February spike

ATLANTA – Tax collections in Georgia rose a modest 3.7% last month, as the state Department of Revenue accelerated the processing of refunds following a delay in February that sent tax revenues soaring.

The state brought in nearly $1.9 billion in taxes in March, an increase of almost $67 million over March of last year. Since the fiscal year began last July, tax receipts are up $1.55 billion over the same nine-month period a year ago.

Despite the overall increase in tax collections, individual income taxes fell 4.1% last month, largely resulting from a 69.8% increase in refunds to taxpayers only partially offset by a much smaller increase of 32.7% in tax payments during the month.

Sales tax collections rose a healthy 12.6% percent in March compared to March 2020, a month that marked the beginning of the lockdown of Georgia’s economy amid the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

Corporate income taxes were up by 21.6% last month, as refunds issued by the state fell by a huge 63.1% while tax payments rose by 21.3%.

February marked an anomaly in Georgia’s tax revenue outlook because the state didn’t start processing tax returns – and, thus, sending out refunds – until the 12th of the month based on Internal Revenue Service guidance.

New state contracting option could ease Talmadge Bridge project

Raising the Talmadge Bridge would ease access to the Port of Savannah.

ATLANTA – Transportation planners may be able to use legislation the General Assembly passed recently originally aimed at freight rail to make more room for large cargo ships calling at the Port of Savannah.

A bill lawmakers approved on the last day of this year’s legislative session authorizes the state to seek private investment to help finance improvements to Georgia’s freight-rail network.

But provisions the state Senate tacked onto a measure that originated in the Georgia House of Representatives add a new dimension.

Besides the freight rail piece, the final version of the bill would give the state Department of Transportation a new method of contracting for major projects the agency could use to raise the Talmadge Bridge to accommodate a new generation of huge containerized-cargo ships calling increasingly at the port’s Garden City Terminal.

“We know what we’d like to achieve is the raise the bridge,” Georgia Commissioner of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry said Friday. “The question is how much and how do you do it?”

The underlying freight rail component of the bill, now on its way to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk, stems from two years of work by the Georgia Freight & Logistics Commission, a panel of lawmakers, local elected officials, business leaders and logistics industry executives.

The commission reported the state needs up to $1.5 billion a year to move growing volumes of freight smoothly through Georgia.

The bill dedicates the state’s 4% sales tax on diesel fuel used in locomotives to freight rail projects, but that would only generate $4 million to $5 million a year.

To start drawing down the rest, the legislation authorizes the state to enter into public-private partnerships with the freight rail industry, a model that is proving successful in building a network of toll lanes in metro Atlanta.

Rail companies would be allowed to help finance projects that have been deemed of benefit to the public.

Seth Millican, executive director of the Georgia Transportation Alliance, an affiliate of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, said additional rail sidings and grade separations at rail crossings would qualify as public benefits because they would improve safety and ease traffic flow.

“Particularly in rural communities, you have the issue of blocked crossings,” he said. “If you’ve been stuck trying to get your kids to school or to a doctor’s appointment, there’s a pretty practical implication.”

Millican said the need to improve Georgia’s freight rail network has grown more acute during the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused e-commerce to explode.

“We’re seeing a dramatic increase in people transitioning from shopping in stores to e-commerce,” he said. “It’s an overwhelming change in spending habits.”

The pandemic also has contributed to strong growth at the Port of Savannah, encouraging transportation planners to think about raising the Talmadge Bridge, which at its current height hampers the free flow of cargo into and out of the port during high tides.

McMurry said the project is in its earliest stages, with no timetable set or price tag determined. The contracting provisions in the new bill would help the DOT find the answers to those questions, he said.

McMurry said the legislation provides for a “construction manager/general contractor” approach that differs from the DOT’s traditional method of contracting and the design-build model the agency has been using for a few years.

Traditionally, the DOT decides to do a project, receives bids for the work and selects separate contractors to design and build it. Under the design-build model, the agency hires a contractor to both design and build a project.

“This is in the middle,” McMurry explained. “We hire a designer and a contractor to work with the designer as a team. They design the project up to a point at which a decision can be made.”

Once a decision is made to move forward with a project, the DOT either can ask the contracting team for a price to close the deal or can put the project out to bid, the commissioner said.

The construction manager/general contractor approach ran into criticism as it went through the committee review process in the General Assembly.

“The contractor and the department reach an agreement that doesn’t seem to involve any competition,” said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club. “It’s a seller’s market. … Why couldn’t they have gone through the normal process?”

House Transportation Committee Chairman Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, defended the measure on the House floor shortly before lawmakers gave it final passage.

“This is in no way a no-bid contracting bill,” he said. “Contractors would not allow that to happen. This is their bread and butter.”

McMurry said the bill contains “guardrails” aimed at preventing the new form of contracting from being used too often. It limits the construction manager/general contractor model from being used for more than two projects in a single fiscal year or more than seven projects during any 10-year period.

McMurry said the Talmadge Bridge project is well suited for the construction manager/general contractor option because the DOT lacks experience with cable bridges.

“That kind of cable bridge is uniquely designed and constructed,” he said. “We would bring in a contractor with expertise in cable construction to work with a designer to say how much we can raise [the bridge] if we can. Until you get into the design with that contractor, you don’t know if it’s truly feasible or not.”

McMurry said if the project is not feasible, the DOT would be able to exit the contract.

While the DOT begins planning whether and how to raise the Talmadge Bridge, the General Assembly has agreed to extend the Freight & Logistics Commission to a third year.

McMurry said the commission will use that time to identify additional sources of revenue to pay for needed upgrades to Georgia’s freight rail network.

“Knowing the case has been made for infrastructure investment that supports freight and logistics, the question is how do you provide the funding?” he said. “What are the opportunities for funding meaningful projects going forward?”

Sierra Club challenging plan to charge Georgia Power customers for coal ash cleanup

An aerial view of Georgia Power’s Plant Scherer (File photo)

ATLANTA – The Sierra Club filed an appeal Friday to a court decision upholding Georgia Power Co.’s plan to collect from customers $525 million in coal ash pond closure costs.

The state Public Service Commission (PSC) gave the Atlanta-based utility permission to pass along those costs as part of Georgia Power’s 2019 rate case. A Fulton County Superior Court judge upheld the commission’s decision late last year.

Georgia Power is spending an estimated $8.1 billion on a multi-year plan to close all 29 of its ash ponds located at 11 coal-burning power plants across the state to comply with federal regulations. The utility plans to excavate and remove the ash from 19 ponds and close the other 10 ponds in place.

Coal ash contains contaminants including mercury, cadmium and arsenic that can pollute groundwater and drinking water as well as air.

“Georgia power customers have already paid for the coal being burned – both with their pocketbooks and with their health,” said David Rogers, Southeast deputy regional director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “They shouldn’t have to foot the bill for Georgia Power’s bad business decision decades ago to not properly dispose of this toxic coal ash.”

In a brief submitted to the Georgia Court of Appeals, the Sierra Club argues that Georgia Power failed to explain in the rate case how it would spend the $525 million it requested.

The brief also complains that the PSC approved Georgia Power’s proposal even though the state Environmental Protection Division has yet to issue permits for the ponds slated to be closed.

The costs of cleaning up around 92 million tons of coal ash across Georgia would go up if the PSC later requires the utility to excavate all of the ponds and store the ash in lined landfills, the Sierra Club asserts.

Georgia Power issued the following statement on the case:

“The issue of cost recovery was thoroughly discussed and evaluated through Georgia’s open and transparent regulatory process with the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC), and the PSC’s decision was affirmed by the Superior Court of Fulton County.

“Georgia Power took early action to quickly and safely begin closing all of our ash ponds, and our closure plans fully comply with the federal Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) rule as well as the more stringent requirements of the state CCR rule. We strongly disagree with any claims to the contrary.”

The Republican-controlled General Assembly declined to take up legislation introduced by minority Democrats during the recently concluded session requiring coal ash to be stored in lined landfills.

A bill tightening monitoring requirements for coal ash made it through the Georgia House of Representatives but died in the state Senate.