Metro Motorists Pay When State Doesn’t

By Benita M. Dodd

Driving on metro Atlanta’s roads is reminiscent of that fifties fad in which college students staged elaborate contests to squeeze the most people into a phone booth. Only, for motorists in the nation’s ninth-largest metro area, the congestion is no passing fad; it has become a way of life.

Who’s to blame depends on who’s pointing the finger, and the named culprits include: the feds, for freezing new highway spending; “sprawl” – that lifestyle choice in which families opt to live the American dream in subdivisions far from the madding crowd; “anti-automobile extremism,” which leads to unrealistic transportation alternatives that put a hurt on the cul-de-sac crowd, and the metro area’s magnetism, which is drawing more than 500 new residents daily. 

The inconvenience of traffic congestion is compounded by its devastating cost – as much as $1.9 billion a year in lost time and fuel, according to one recent metro-area study – and the accompanying damage to the metro area’s air quality and reputation. Vehicles spewing emissions as they sit idling in the hot Atlanta summer reduce the likelihood that the metro area will ever be free of costly Environmental Protection Agency regulations. 

At his first meeting with the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority board in May, Gov. Sonny Perdue threw down the gauntlet. 

“We must put our efforts, and our money, into projects that are going to address, cost effectively, the region’s traffic congestion needs as well as its air quality issues,” he said.

That’s a no-brainer, but agendas have been known to override common sense, as the governor pointed out in a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “I think historically in Georgia transportation decisions have been more politically balanced than they’ve been transportation-policy balanced.” 

Unfortunately, according to The Road Information Program (TRIP), a Washington-based congestion-relief advocacy group, Georgia policy-makers have been taking the scenic route on relieving congestion. Analyzing statistics from the Federal Highway Administration, TRIP has found that Georgia is doing a dismal job at funding its transportation needs: at about half the national average, and considerably lower than neighboring states.

Georgia transportation spending is $10.74 per million vehicle miles traveled. The national average is $22.60; it’s $21.36 in Florida; $21.11 in North Carolina and $15.43 in Tennessee. 

Even as Georgia’s population grew by about 2.7 million people from 1981 to 2001, along with the number of vehicles and vehicle miles traveled, state-generated funding for highways plummeted. State-generated funding for highway construction dropped 36 percent, when adjusted for inflation. And whereas in 1981 the state was generating $31.10 per 1,000 vehicle miles traveled, by 2001 that figure had plunged 74 percent to $8.25 per 1,000 miles traveled.

The impact on Georgia has been minimal thus far, because federal funding soared during the same period. Federal funding for Georgia highways increased 314 percent. Consequently, the overall capital expenditures on Georgia highways dropped just 6 percent from 1981-2001.

Transportation proposals to relieve congestion range from ideas with merit to plans as full of hot air as the Kyoto protocol: Synchronize traffic lights to improve the flow. Coordinate transportation agencies. Expand HOV lanes. Add sidewalks and bicycle paths. Implement more mass transit options, from regional bus service, “flex trolleys” (cost-effective train-like buses that run in dedicated lanes), to rail in all its incarnations — light, heavy and high-speed.  Adopt user-funded incentives/disincentives such as congestion pricing, high-occupancy toll lanes, higher gas taxes and mileage-based auto insurance. 

Above all, there is a clear and compelling need for the state to show greater commitment to investing in accommodating the lifestyle choices of the vast majority of Georgia residents. Automobiles are taking a back seat in Georgia at a time that vehicle travel has increased 141 percent and the state has registered 4.8 million passenger vehicles, 1.8 million trucks; more than 108,000 motorcycles and 24,000 buses. Drivers expect and understand a little inconvenience on their trips around town, but they don’t deserve short shrift.

As the governor told GRTA, “When it comes to transportation investments, it is time we were guided by a little common sense.”

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 (June 27, 2003). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.