(Guest column published January 29 by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
By Benita Dodd
Georgia’s Department of Transportation has been under fire in recent years, much of it deserved amid unwise policy decisions and lackadaisical financial management. Under new management, with greater transparency and financial accountability, the agency is doing better. But still more can be done for policy to progress in Georgia’s current economic climate.
The department’s job is complicated by the lack of available funding. Last year, voters in all but three of 12 regions rejected a proposed regional penny sales tax that would have funded projects in each region. The shortfall is more serious when considering declining fuel tax revenues; congressional earmarks that divert federal funds from state priorities; the federal strings attached to federal funds; and the long overdue upgrades and maintenance on the nation’s interstates.
Funding to jump-start projects could come from the private sector. Unfortunately, the DOT and the state lost credibility in recent years among private investors that sought to partner with government to enhance mobility in Georgia. Private investment companies are apprehensive, disappointed by what many consider “bait-and-switch” tactics by government after companies invested millions of dollars in bids and project proposals. If the state is to find money for projects going forward, the DOT must make an earnest and honest effort to woo back investors and restore interest in public-private partnerships.
More than that, the department must minimize subsidies and taxpayer spending. Open the transportation market to more taxis and private bus companies, and take a firm stand against the money pits of rail and high-speed rail. Such vendors as MegaBus and Groome Transportation manage long-distance and intercity trips cheaply and without requiring taxpayer funding. Given the lack of funds, user fees must take precedence. This requires a major education effort to help transit users understand the need for distance-based fares or motorists understand toll lanes.
Perhaps the biggest battle the DOT faces is that “perception is reality.” The department’s seriously deficient image prevails. Voters and taxpayers won’t stand behind an agency they believe is fiscally irresponsible. How many Georgians, policymakers and legislators have been dissuaded of the perception of cronyism and horse-trading? Or know that Georgia’s DOT, in fact, leads the nation in the percentage of projects delivered on budget and is second in the nation in bringing in projects on time?
Transparency, public education and legislative cooperation are all important to the department’s future success. The agency must engage the public by televising hearings online to add openness. Embracing the private sector in public transit and infrastructure investment and operations will reduce the need for taxpayer funds while adding private-sector jobs. Letting legislators in on the process through regular meetings, open houses and personal updates will bring the policy into politics. Like turning around a tanker, it will take awhile to change the perception of the DOT as a road-building behemoth. But it can be done.