By Benita M. Dodd
Transportation proposals are chasing lawmakers at such an exciting and breathtaking pace this year that the convergence of plans under the Gold Dome seems destined to outdo NASCAR’s legendary pileups.
Just last November, Georgia Public Policy Foundation senior fellow Robert Poole, who is the Transportation Director of Reason Foundation, outlined a massive, innovative and astonishingly bold plan to get Atlanta out of the congestion forecast for the metro area. It included an express network of high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes instead of planned high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes; a tunnel from the southern end of Georgia 400 to I-20 and on to I-675; an east-west toll route from Lakewood Freeway to I-20, and a truck toll tunnel that would go under downtown Atlanta.
Unless there are major changes in the long-range transportation plan, it won’t bring any congestion relief or shorter travel times, Poole pointed out. In the existing plan, the $26 billion investment in transportation infrastructure would have been allocated as follows: $10 billion for transit, $5 billion for HOV lanes, but just $8 billion for highways, which represent the vast majority of all the trips that are made, both by individuals and freight.
Regional transportation officials declared Poole’s proposal “undermined by inaccurate cost estimates, lack of real-world feasibility, incomplete data” and accused him of “tossing aside transit and land-use planning as ‘nice things.’” In fact, the proposed express toll network, a “virtual’ dedicated bus lane, would be capable of providing a seamless, attractive transit network using Bus Rapid Transit.
Two short months later, Poole is all but vindicated: Transportation officials are embracing the proposals, from the ambitious tunnel project to the HOT lanes network.
“What’s the most under-utilized lane in the system?” asks past Transportation Board chairman (and current member) David Doss, sharing his “Big Idea” statewide transportation plan that would also convert HOV lanes to HOT lanes. He answered his own question: “The HOV.”
Doss even includes the tunnels, which some derided as pie-in-the-sky.
The 10-year plan includes something for everyone, as a statewide plan is wont to do, and an incredibly generous guarantee of project delivery on time and within budget. Doss’ “lockbox” transportation trust fund would have money for fixing bridges; paving dirt roads; underwriting operations and maintenance for public transit (including MARTA); a downtown Atlanta streetcar project; an Atlanta-to-Savannah Maglev train study; the state’s 102 general aviation airports; sidewalks and bike paths, and the ubiquitous “state aid” to local governments.
So how do you pay for the “Big Idea” when the state freely admits to a Big Deficit of nearly $200 billion in transportation funding over the next 30 years? Therein lies the rub as state lawmakers consider funding options: Should voters (by referendum) approve a one-cent statewide transportation sales tax for the next 10 years to raise $22 billion, and supplement that with tolls and private sector funds? Should counties be allowed to join forces and fund transportation projects by regional Special Local Option Sales Taxes (SPLOSTs)?
Should policymakers increase the user fee – the motor fuel tax – so that those who use the roads pay for the improvements? Clearly, automobile fuel efficiency means declining value on the cents-per-gallon tax in Georgia. There’s the question, too, of how to capture the road use by hybrids and alternatively fueled vehicles.
From a taxpayer standpoint, lawmakers must consider how to offset the additional burden on taxpayers. From an economic standpoint, they need to ensure that Georgia is not at a competitive disadvantage to neighboring states; it must not become prohibitively expensive to do business here. From a transportation standpoint, congestion mitigation must be the priority, especially in Atlanta, the state’s economic engine. From a political standpoint, transportation funding must stand in line with a long list of other tax initiatives.
The “Big Idea” is sure to generate questions, proposals and opponents as it takes shape and circulates across the state. What’s encouraging is that Doss has embraced the controversial “big idea” released by the Reason Foundation and the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. What’s better is that there is acknowledgement that a patchwork approach may placate but won’t solve the problem. What’s great, despite a long row to hoe, is that finally, there is a Big Idea under consideration.
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 (March 2, 2006). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.