By Benita M. Dodd
They weren’t playing nice at the Capitol this year, and when legislators grabbed their toys and went home, neither chamber had won the transportation legislation tug-of war. Just because no agreement on funding was reached, however, doesn’t put the brakes on Georgia transportation policy.
First, despite the criticism over their disagreement, it’s just as well for Georgians that senators and representatives couldn’t find common ground over whether a statewide or regional one-cent sales tax plan could fund transportation. Why? Because carte blanche is passé. Georgians deserve better. They deserve a plan, to know what they’re voting for before they’re asked to pay higher taxes. And because just as Georgians must constrain their spending to their budget, transportation policy-makers must now get creative, prioritizing and becoming fiscally conservative with available resources and in the face of declining revenues.. The opportunity for creativity, especially, is at an all-time high, in these tough economic times where energy, fuel and vehicles will all become costlier for Americans.
Second, even as they refused to give ground on funding, negotiators for the House and the Senate acknowledged that focus on Georgia’s freight corridors is critical. In November 2008 – before the legislative session – a commentary by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation (“Road to Congestion Relief Leads … Somewhere Else”) pointed out that an inland freight hub, along with adding capacity outside the metro Atlanta area, would divert unnecessary traffic in metro Atlanta and reduce the need for costly capacity addition inside the metro area. Not only would that offer an opportunity to distribute the wealth of economic growth statewide, it would also distribute traffic statewide and reduce congestion inside Atlanta. Additionally, much of the highway development around Georgia has already been completed and the Georgia Department of Transportation’s value engineering approach can evaluate and implement reasonable enhancements. Cost per-mile models, frequently updated, can guide policy-makers in the costs and benefits of the various transportation projects and modes.
Clearing the logjam at the Savannah port, providing truckers with alternate routes across the state and enhancing freight rail corridors are vital steps. So to, is acquiring right-of-way to enhance rail corridors that could serve high-speed and commuter rail for the state should future growth warrant.
To its credit, the House proposal for funding transportation attempted to provide a project list, but the “something for everyone” mishmash of projects raised some serious cost, benefit and wisdom questions at a time that demands fiscal constraint and prioritizing. One example is a light rail transit system proposed from Kennesaw to Smyrna and along I-285 and I-85. Buyer beware: In Charlotte, N.C., transit authority this week approved an extension of the Lynx Blue Line light rail even though the 11-mile extension “will cost a lot more than originally expected.” The cost estimate now is $928 million to $1.12 billion; it was $741 million in 2006. (It’s scheduled for completion in 2016, with plenty of time to escalate further.) And Denver’s FasTracks light rail system, approved in 2004 at an estimated cost of $4.7 billion, is already facing a budget shortfall of $2.2 billion; it’s scheduled for completion in 2017.
The House proposal included arterial road and interchange improvements, but it also provided for street cars, Maglev to Savannah, the Beltline around Atlanta and commuter rail to Athens – all nice to have, but questionable expenditures of limited taxpayer funds. When state (taxpayer) revenues are limited and needs are growing, “wants” are secondary to “needs.” Alternative funding sources must be explored. That is why it is so important that the state embrace and expedite public-private partnerships (PPPs) in Georgia, to the extent that they are feasible.
Not every project is suitable for a PPP. The private sector is profit-driven, which is a bane and a blessing for consumers. To make a profit requires a clientele, and some vital public service projects will never draw a crowd or a profit. To make a profit and continue to do so requires a satisfied clientele, which means good customer service. Deciding whether a project justifies a public-private partnership or a public-sector approach isn’t always easy. But it promotes a limited-government environment and succeeds when government doesn’t relinquish performance oversight.
The Reason Foundation’s Bob Poole recommends guidance from an Australian publication, “Public Sector Comparator: a Technical Note,” at www.partnerships.vic.gov.au. It is described as “a competitive and transparent mechanism” for PPPs whose aim is “to deliver improved services and better value for money, primarily through optimal risk transfer, management synergies, encouraging innovation, efficient asset utilization and integrated whole-of-life asset management.”
The tools are available. Common sense dictates that policy-makers come back out, play ball and turn failed legislation into sound transportation policy.
Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (April 24, 2009). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.