Express toll lanes rise above Interstate 285 in  Georgia, north of Atlanta. The project is scheduled to be finished in 2018, but Georgia has put off other road improvements due to uncertainty over federal funding.
Express toll lanes rise above Interstate 285 in  Georgia, north of Atlanta. The project is scheduled to be finished in 2018, but Georgia has put off other road improvements due to uncertainty over federal funding. - 

Just north of Atlanta, workers unload a dump truck full of dirt at what will be the entrance point to an express tollway. When finished in 2018, these toll lanes will help commuters avoid the region’s notorious rush hour traffic.

That project managed to get funding in the past. But the state made no headway on a host of other road projects — until now. So state transportation officials breathed a loud sigh of relief after President Barack Obama signed a five-year transportation bill into law for about $300 billion.

Congress had been paying for some road and bridge projects through a series of quick fixes. That approach created headaches for states and construction companies. But now, they’re ready to roll.

“We’ve got shelves of projects. You know, just because we didn’t have certainty as federal funding is concerned doesn’t mean we didn’t continue to plan,” said Natalie Dale, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Transportation.

The state will start clearing off those shelves next month. There’s everything from highway beautification to resurfacing and maintenance on Interstates.

Georgia couldn’t put those projects out to bid, because the DOT wasn’t sure federal dollars would be there.

“And this is key because federal funding is about one-fourth of state transportation spending on average,” said Anne Stauffer at the Pew Charitable Trusts. She said the short-term fixes passed by Congress forced states to delay major projects and focus on small, shovel-ready jobs.

Randy Lake likes shovel-ready, but he loves big-ticket items. He’s CEO of Atlanta-based Oldcastle Materials, which provides asphalt and concrete to more than 40 states.

“What we have started to build over the last 10 or 15 years is just the capacity to take on larger work, because we would just anticipate and see by pure population growth the need for the need for increased and better infrastructure,” Lake said. Now, he looks forward to helping states meet a pent-up demand for major highway projects. “What will be exciting is having kind of a five year view to be able to actually execute on jobs or projects that increase capacity,” he said.

But there’s one job Congress didn’t execute on — raising the federal gas tax, which fills the coffers of the highway trust fund. It hasn’t gone up since the early '90's, and collections are falling short.

That could lead to more uncertainty for states when the transportation bill expires in 2020.