TIFTON -- Tift County Commission Chairman Buddy Bryan told Tifton Rotarians Wednesday that if state and federal funds to repair or replace bridges in the county don't come soon, taxpayers may have to face a millage increase.

"We are getting to the point where we can't sustain the maintenance on our roads and bridges," said Bryan. "If funds at the state and federal level are not forthcoming, we at the county level have no choice but to add a one mill to our tax rate and begin funding a rebuild program in the very near future."

President George W. Bush's 12-month spending plan which began Oct. 1 included $22.7 billion for highways, a $9.1 billion reduction from the year before, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Federal monies are filtered through state governments who award local governments' funding.

"The trend has been that as the economy slowed, it impacts everybody, including the DOT," said County Administrator Wayne Johnson. "The DOT has requested that legislators keep funding at least as high as it was the year before, but that hasn't happened."

Bryan told Rotarians that the cost to repair 10 of the most poorly rated county-maintained bridges totals $3.6 million. That figure doesn't include the Salem Church Road bridge over Ty Ty Creek. He said a one mill increase would produce approximately $600,000 in the rebuilding fund.

According to Bryan, the Georgia Department of Transportation has refused to upgrade the Salem Church Bridge at Ty Ty Creek after Tift County "completed the work they said needed to be done."

"The DOT has taken the position that as these bridges deteriorate, you just reduce the posted weight limits to keep them legal," said Bryan. "What this means is in the event a truck breaks it down, the owner of the truck has just bought themselves a bridge."

Bryan said he believes the danger lies in someone hauling a load of peanuts of some other commodity over the bridge and damaging it to the point of collapse.

"The next car carrying some of our families could be the straw that breaks the camel's back," said Bryan.

Harry Doss, the county's director of Roads and Public Works, said Thursday that the DOT conducts inspections every two years.

"Over the years, these (bridges) have been slowly deteriorating," said Doss. "Wood pilings under the bridges are the biggest problems."

Doss said the county wasn't concerned until the bridges were rated at weight limits less than 10 tons.

"I don't consider them safe until they are over 10 tons," said Doss.

Bryan said the Tift County Board of Education (BOE) was recently notified of the Georgia Department of Transportation's most recent bridge inspection findings and bridge ratings. Doss said Thursday that signs indicating new weight limits for bridges should all be posted within a week.

According to a letter to Bryan from Buddy Gratton, the DOT's state maintenance engineer, dated Jan. 8, all bridges carrying school buses should have a minimum capacity of 10 tons. The Salem Church Road over Ty Ty Creek is rated at three tons.

"We have been rerouting a bus around that one for two or three years," said Scott Tucker, the BOE's Public Safety Director.

Tucker said the Flat Ford Road Bridge is another that bus drivers avoid.

Tucker said a full size school bus loaded with children weighs approximately 24,000 pounds or 12 tons.

Tucker said Doss is "good about letting us know the status of roads and bridges," but that he didn't understand why "things like this involving our children are not priority."

According to Johnson, only a portion of the money requested from state and federal road and bridge improvement funds for the county's top priority project was issued to the county in 2002.

"That was to resurface a mile of road," said Johnson. "We didn't receive anything for bridges."

Johnson said bridge funding would probably come from federal monies.

Bryan suggested that another option for a source of revenue to repair and maintain roads and bridges would be from an increase i

n gasoline taxes.

"Raise the gas tax two cents and dedicate it solely for for county road projects," said Bryan. "Each penny added to the gas tax would produce $50 million and go a long way towards improving our roads."

Bryan said there was a push last year in the legislature to pass a gas tax increase to fund road and bridge programs, but "it never got out of committee." Johnson said proposed increases in gas taxes to fund road and bridge projects have historically been rejected by lawmakers.

"The result is that the financial burden in now back on the counties," said Bryan.

Voters approved a one cent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST III) referendum March 20, 2001, that included a $7.3 million allocation to Tift County for resurfacing, paving and maintenance of roads through Tift County. "Four lightweight bridges in Tift County must be detoured by school buses due to weight limits," states a pamphlet distributed by the Citizens for Progress III Committee.

Bryan reported Wednesday that, over a 10-month period ending Oct. 31, 2002, the SPLOST III revenues collected $5.5 million with $2.9 million of that distributed to Tift County.

To contact reporter Angie Thompson, call 382-4321, ext. 208.

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