By Benita M. Dodd
The Georgia Department of Transportation’s Draft Statewide Strategic Plan released this month reflects the state’s transportation approach for the next 20 years and, it’s promising that this time it’s two steps forward and just one step back. Amid ongoing discord about transportation solutions and funding options, observers must demand Georgia not shoot itself in the foot while hobbling ahead.
The plan outlines a transportation strategy for Georgia to create 425,000 jobs and $480 billion in economic benefits through additional investment, regional and local partnerships “and a new paradigm of results-based investments in public infrastructure.” The DOT deserves credit for making some tough admissions in the draft plan, which notes that after two decades of under-investment, the state needs “new, flexible revenue sources that can be invested in multimodal approaches, demand management and other policies that support the investments, and project-delivery models that use public-private partnerships to control costs and share risk.”
The plan acknowledges the difficulty of funding fixed-rail transit because of the pattern of dispersed development in metro Atlanta and funding challenges that require planners to prioritize projects with the biggest bang for the buck. Those funding challenges and the need to focus on congestion relief forced policy-makers to be innovative with ideas and largely honest about what can be done.
Yes, the draft refers to passenger rail, street cars and trolleys as transit options. But it embraces bus-rapid transit, which this Foundation has long promoted. And it emphasizes: “The reliable modes with the highest return for the state have a ‘dual’ purpose infrastructure, like managed lanes,” which facilitate transit. Long-suffering Georgians must not let the proponents of passenger rail and big government gloss over the important caveats peppered throughout the DOT draft: “as resources become available;” “if additional sources come online that can be flexed across modes;” “if new funding becomes available, this strategy gives an important role to transit;” and most important, “the state will expect local governments to have clear operating plans for these systems … not just capital strategies.”
With so much to like about the plan – freight corridor enhancements, comprehensive statewide improvements, private sector investment, its mobility focus – it’s disappointing that the DOT throws a bone to the Obama administration’s attempts to marry housing and transportation with a nebulous “livability” focus: “Since local governments have primary responsibility for land-use planning, zoning and permitting, they must take the lead in developing the granular policies, plans and design standards that will support and encourage mixed uses and residential density in metro employment centers,” the plan opines.
That’s a nice way to pass the buck. But it also gives a dog a bone. Just as some pine for the romance of the railroad as the future of transportation, metropolitan planners still operate under the misguided belief that Americans – and Georgians – choose their homes largely based on their work location. That may have been true in the era of “lifetime” jobs, but technology, improved mobility, changing demographics and economic progress all have contributed to the demise of job longevity, company loyalty and permanent homes. Today, home choices are influenced by schools, upward mobility, safety, neighborhood amenities, prices and more. Local governments can do more for housing affordability and mobility by focusing on the needs of the region’s “customers” as the DOT calls users, and setting aside attempts at social engineering. Previous efforts to force residents to conform to planners’ community ideals are one reason metro Atlantans must suffer congestion now.
The plan’s proposal that metro governments “review” parking policies, too, suggests punitive measures against motorists. The market, not governments, should be in control. Tolled lanes, along with dynamic (congestion) pricing will do much for mobility by encouraging motorists to weigh the value of their trip and timing. Diverting unnecessary through traffic away from Atlanta must be a priority; Chattanooga is already working on improving U.S. 27, an ideal bypass in Georgia for traffic that need not go through Atlanta to travel between Tennessee and Florida and the Gulf Coast. Adding capacity through tunnels under Atlanta must not be arbitrarily dismissed; it succeeded safely beneath historic Versailles in France.
The DOT’s strategic plan holds huge promise, through innovation and prudent investment, for improving freight corridors, mobility, economic opportunity and Georgians’ quality of life. It’s unlikely much will happen in the Legislature given election-season posturing, the slow economic recovery, the struggling state and federal budget and plain old politics. But amid the bickering over “how,” let’s not lose sight of the DOT’s mostly sound approach of “what” will serve this state for decades to come.
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 (January 8, 2010). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.