By Benita M. Dodd
Sometimes, you can judge a book by its cover. The 2009 Transportation MAP – Metropolitan Atlanta Performance – Report released in October is available at http://tinyurl.com/yknjba4. It offers a “snapshot” of performance relative to mobility, transit accessibility, air quality and safety. Yet it’s the cover picture that paints a thousand words.
The photograph shows the crowded regular lanes of the Downtown Connector, the spot in the center of Atlanta where Interstates 75 and 85 merge. The high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes are practically empty; a lone bus travels down one HOV lane; the HOV entrance ramp is barely occupied and the regular entrance ramp is clogged. The report cites improvement overall, but the cover epitomizes metro Atlanta’s costly congestion.
The lesson: Metro Atlanta’s commuters tend to be solo drivers; transit is not a competitive mode if it is caught in the same rush-hour traffic, and HOV lanes do not hold promise as an attractive alternative.
Clearly, traffic problems are both a sign of a thriving economy and of poor planning. But throwing good money after bad or tackling every challenge with the same level of enthusiasm and funding is not good policy. Including these 10 principles in transportation decision-making, on the other hand, will produce results.
- Focus on mobility, not livability, “sustainability” or other liabilities to congestion relief. Don’t use transportation policy as a social engineering tool to coerce people out of their vehicles into public transit or into higher-density/live-work-play areas. Transportation problems must be resolved with transportation solutions. Nor should environmental policy masquerade as transportation policy. Government must allow the market to work, acknowledge citizens’ choices and work to improve their mobility.
- Prioritize resources based on demand for a particular mode of transportation. For example, 78 percent of Georgia workers drove to work alone in 2006 (down 3 percentage points from 2002); 12 percent carpooled (up 1 point); 2 percent took public transportation (down 1 point) and 2.54 percent of worked from home in 2006 (up from 1.9 percent). Clearly, roads must come first; other modes should not be disproportionately funded.
- Understand the freight network is the backbone of Georgia’s economy. Smoothing freight passage by rail, road, sea or air will ensure economic growth. For example, when rail capacity is relinquished to commuter rail service, it takes a toll on freight capacity. That eventually forces more freight onto trucks, clogging roads.
- Facilitate private sector participation. Projected funding shortfalls in infrastructure operations and maintenance are huge; finding funds for enhancements is an even greater challenge. Not only can the private sector provide funds, it can expedite projects. Encourage tolling, concessions and other public-private initiatives wherever possible. That includes private transit.
- Help commuters consider the value of their trip. Tolls are not just a fund-raising tool. They also encourage commuters to decide when, whether and where to plan their trip. A trip along an improved arterial road may be a lengthier but cheaper choice than the tolled highway lane, which adds lane capacity on the highway. Dynamic charges on a tolled road – perhaps changing by time of day – become congestion insurance and encourage carpooling.
- Building roads is not the only tool to improving mobility. Technology plays an awesome role. Intelligent highway systems provide real-time information, preventing backups; synchronized traffic lights improve traffic flow and bus trip times; ramp meters improve highway flow.
- Target the roads less traveled. Mobility improves and capacity is added when unnecessary traffic is diverted. Viable outlying routes that divert through traffic – freight and automobiles (such as Florida-bound tourists) – would improve traffic flow without having to add lanes in the Atlanta urban area where additional right-of-way is cost-prohibitive.
- Look to alternative funding for transportation. Georgia’s motor fuel tax (7.5 cents) is not indexed to inflation. With increasing costs and fuel efficiency, user fees are falling short. Taking the fuel tax to an inflation-indexed percentage per gallon can help in the near term. Mileage-based charges, tolling and private sector investment are long-term options.
- Demand an end to pork. Transportation policy and funding must focus on moving people from point A to Point B as quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. Congress’ penchant for earmarking funds to certain, largely local and barely transportation-related projects takes money and focus away from a comprehensive statewide approach.
- Plan ahead. Think Northern Arc. Who thought it was clever to merge two interstates in downtown Atlanta? Just because the region is not currently ready for high-speed rail does not mean that it will never be. Right-of-way acquisition should be processed with Georgia’s future in mind.
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 (October 23, 2009). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.