Four Georgia mayors take on Kemp’s no-virus mandates order

Coronavirus (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

ATLANTA – The Democratic mayors of four Georgia cities are asking Gov. Brian Kemp to impose a mask mandate inside state buildings to show he is interested in the health of Georgians as well as the economy.

An open letter sent to the Republican governor Friday by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis, Savannah Mayor Van Johnson and Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz came one day after Kemp issued an executive order prohibiting local governments from imposing any restrictions related to COVID-19.

Kemp cited the need to protect small businesses from government interference.

“As mayors representing nearly 10% of Georgia’s population, we understand all too well how important it is to keep our small business owners prosperous,” the letter stated. “At the same time, our business owners … have also asked us repeatedly to ensure that their workers and customers can be safe throughout our communities.”

The letter went on to argue that while Kemp may find it politically expedient to side with supporters of former President Donald Trump who oppose mask or vaccine mandates, the mayors are more concerned with protecting the health of Georgians who, they argued, overwhelmingly support smart public health measures to fight the spread of coronavirus.

At a news conference Thursday, Kemp said he has no problem with business owners who wish to require mask wearing or vaccinations for their employees and customers. However, he said he opposes local governments dictating to those business owners.

“Local governments will not be able to force businesses to become the mask police or vaccine police,” he said after issuing the order.

Georgia passed the 1 million mark this week for confirmed cases of COVID-19. As of Thursday afternoon, 69,797 Georgians had been hospitalized with COVID-19 and the virus was responsible for 22,151 confirmed or probable deaths, the state Department of Public Health reported.

Interstate 14 project finds home in U.S. Senate infrastructure bill

Interstate 14 would run from Texas to Georgia.

ATLANTA – A long-envisioned plan to build Georgia’s first interstate highway since the 1960s has gained new momentum.

The $1 trillion infrastructure spending bill the U.S. Senate passed this month includes a provision designating Interstate 14 as a “high priority corridor.” The highway would run from Texas to Georgia, connecting many of the Deep South’s military bases and ports.

While the road would be paid for through the normal federal funding process, getting into the Senate bill marks an important step, Josh Waller, director of policy and government affairs for the Georgia Department of Transportation, told members of the State Transportation Board Aug. 19.

“It’s not quite making it I-14 yet,” Waller said. “It’s sort of placing a statement that Congress would like to see it become I-14.”

The state of Georgia is on record endorsing the project. The General Assembly approved a resolution two years ago supporting the construction of the Georgia portion of I-14, which would run from Columbus to Augusta.

State Sen. Ed Harbison, D-Columbus, sponsored the resolution noting the lack of quality highway connectivity between the two cities.

“There’s no easy way to get there,” he said. “This makes a lot of sense.”

While Harbison steered the I-14 resolution through the legislature, the driving force behind the project has been Frank Lumpkin, who started has quest as a high school student in Columbus and is now in his second year of law school at the University of Georgia.

Picking up on an idea that originated in the early 2000s, Lumpkin made a presentation to the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce four years ago and has continued using the same talking points in outlining the project to lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. His latest convert is U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., who worked across the aisle with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to insert the I-14 designation as an amendment to the infrastructure bill.

Lumpkin said the project’s benefits would be threefold: It would improve highway connectivity within Georgia, increase access to and from the Deep South’s military bases and promote economic development in communities in need of a boost.

Building an interstate highway through Georgia’s midsection from Columbus to Augusta by way of Macon not only would connect those communities to the interstate system, Lumpkin said. It would divert a lot of truck traffic from metro-Atlanta’s traffic-choked interstate network, he said.

“A quarter to a third of Atlanta’s truck traffic is not going to Atlanta but through Atlanta,” he said. “If we can take unnecessary truck traffic out of that area, we can significantly alleviate traffic congestion.”

Lumpkin said building I-14 also would have national security benefits by giving Fort Benning, near Columbus, one of the largest military bases in the U.S., a direct connection via Macon and I-16 to Savannah for purposes of troop deployment. Other Georgia military bases along or near the planned route include Robins Air Force Base south of Macon, Fort Gordon near Augusta and Fort Stewart near Savannah.

John Thompson, who founded and chairs the Gulf Coast Strategic Highway Coalition on the western side of the project route in Texas, said the same holds true for military bases west of Georgia including Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Polk in Louisiana and Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.

In fact, Thompson’s coalition has given I-14 the catchy nickname “Forts to Ports,” pointing not only to its proximity to military bases but to ports stretching from Corpus Christi, Texas, to the Port of Savannah.

Thompson said I-14 would provide a convenient route for moving military equipment and personnel as well as an additional hurricane evacuation route. Its proximity to ports would ease the movement of freight, giving rural communities a better chance to land business prospects, he said.

“It goes through an area of the country where the vast majority of it is economically challenged,” he said. “If you don’t have a good transportation system, you do not get to play in the big games.”

So far, only 25 miles of Interstate 14 have actually been built, a stretch of highway near Fort Hood.

But Lumpkin said the presence of even that small segment is important to the project’s chances of becoming reality.

“It became this idea of expanding this highway to Georgia rather than pie in the sky,” he said.

While there’s no firm cost estimate for the project as yet or a completion date, Lumpkin said some stretches of I-14 could be opened within a few years by improving existing roadways to interstate standards, a move that also would save money compared to building from scratch.

The fate of the high-priority designation for I-14 is tied directly to the rest of the massive Senate infrastructure bill.

The bipartisan legislation is caught up in a dispute among majority Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives over whether to pass it quickly and send it President Joe Biden’s desk or hold off until the Senate acts on a broader $3.5 trillion spending bill Republicans oppose.

But having both Warnock and Cruz, normally political opponents, getting behind it certainly helps its chances.

“When you think of the areas that I-14 will connect, these are all areas that have been forgotten or neglected by some for too long,” Warnock said. “I’m committed to do everything I can to spur economic growth in every corner of our state.”

Georgia unemployment drops to pre-pandemic level

Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler

ATLANTA – Georgia’s unemployment rate fell to 3.7% last month, the lowest it’s been since the coronavirus pandemic began in March of last year.

The state added 43,600 jobs in July, while the labor participation rate was 61.7%, the same as the national rate.

Georgia and other Republican-led states cut off federal unemployment benefits in June, three months before those programs created during the pandemic are due to expire, a move that drew criticism from Democrats and labor advocates.

Since then, the state has added nearly 84,000 jobs and seen a 300% increase in the number of employed Georgians, state Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said Thursday.

“We are seeing all-time high job numbers in many sectors,” he said. “The job market is saturated with opportunities for job seekers, and we are working to connect employers with candidates for long-term employment.”

The job sectors accounting for the most gains last month were accommodations and food services, the sector hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with 15,200 listings. The administrative and support services sector was next with 7,100.

There are more than 192,000 job openings listed online at Employ Georgia from a wide variety of sectors. In many cases, employers are willing to train quality candidates and help them obtain additional credentials.

For more information on jobs and current labor force data, visit the Georgia Labor Force Market Explorer website.

Kemp to local governments: No COVID-19 mandates

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp issued an executive order Thursday prohibiting local governments in Georgia from imposing mask, vaccine or building-capacity mandates aimed at discouraging the spread of COVID-19.

The cities of Atlanta and Savannah reinstated mask mandates late last month for public indoor spaces, citing a rise in cases of the virus driven by the highly contagious delta variant.

Some school districts in Georgia also are requiring students and teachers to wear masks inside school buildings.

While Kemp has supported letting individual school systems make those decisions, he said his executive order is aimed at businesses.

“Small businesses across our state should not be punished by local governments,” he said. “Just as our economy is starting to return to normal, small businesses cannot survive another shutdown.”

Kemp said Thursday’s order is in keeping with his commitment throughout the course of the pandemic to protect “both lives and livelihoods.”

Thanks to that stand, Georgia has been able to reduce unemployment and experience record job growth while still prioritizing seniors vulnerable to coronavirus and seeing to the needs of hospitals and schools, he said.

“I trust hardworking Georgians to know what’s best for themselves, their families and their employees,” he said.

With cases of COVID-19 rising in Georgia to the point of straining hospital emergency rooms and ICUs, Kemp has taken heat in recent weeks from critics calling on the governor to take a more forceful stand against the virus.

“It’s bad enough that Brian Kemp has refused to implement any statewide measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in Georgia – now, he is forbidding local governments from protecting their own communities,” said Rebecca Galanti, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Georgia.

“As public health officials, parents, and Georgians at large beg Kemp to take action to combat the current COVID-19 surge in our state, the only action he is apparently willing to take is one that will help COVID-19 spread in Georgia and undermine local efforts to control the virus.”

Georgia passed the 1 million mark in confirmed cases of the virus this week. As of Thursday afternoon, 69,797 Georgians had been hospitalized with COVID-19 and the virus was responsible for 22,151 confirmed or probable deaths, the state Department of Public Health reported.

Georgia and other Southern states also continued to lag behind the nation in COVID-19 vaccination rates.

Georgia 400 toll lanes being delayed by unexpectedly high contractor bid

Georgia 400

ATLANTA – A plan to add toll lanes to Georgia 400 in Fulton and Forsyth counties hit a major roadblock Thursday when the State Transportation Board rejected the only qualifying bid on the project.

Board members agreed with the findings of a board committee overseeing the bidding process that the bid submitted by the roadbuilding consortium MW 400 Partners was far in excess of the $1.7 billion the state Department of Transportation had budgeted for the work.

“This is a very upsetting point in the cycle,” said board member Kevin Abel, chairman of the board ‘s P3 (Public-Private Partnership) Committee. “[But] the project is not over. … It’s just going to be delayed.”

The Georgia 400 project is part of state plans to relieve traffic congestion by adding a series of toll lanes across metro Atlanta. Toll lanes are already in place along Interstate 75 in Cobb and Cherokee counties, I-75 south of Atlanta, and on I-85 in DeKalb and Gwinnett counties.

The plan for Georgia 400 calls for adding toll lanes to 16 miles of the north-south highway from the North Springs MARTA station in North Fulton north to McFarland Parkway in Forsyth County. Construction was scheduled to begin late next year and be completed in 2027.

The transportation board decided to put the work out to bid as a public-private partnership project, meaning the contractor would not only design, build and maintain the lanes but would also finance the construction. The contractor would recover its investment by collecting the toll revenue through a 35-year agreement with the DOT.

Meg Pirkle, the DOT’s chief engineer, told board members Thursday the agency conducted a “robust evaluation process” only to find just one bid fit the criteria the department had established for a successful bid. However, the bid was far above what the DOT had anticipated, she said.

Pirkle said she could not reveal the amount of the bid because MW 400 Partners has declared it a trade secret.

Pirkle said one factor in the higher-than-expected bid was that it came in May, a time when the price of construction materials was especially high due to supply-chain disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The P3 Committee met earlier this week and recommended rejecting the bid and essentially starting over with the procurement process.

“We’re committed to seeing the project delivered,” Pirkle said. “But DOT [also] is committed to being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

Pirkle said it’s uncertain how long starting the procurement process over will delay the project.

Thursday’s decision also could delay other projects, notably plans to add toll lanes along the Top End of I-285.