Priorities should drive transportation policy

By Ron Sifen

The metropolitan planning organization for the 10-county metro Atlanta region, the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), recently adopted a $67 billion package of transportation projects over the next 25 years. But there’s a problem: The ARC anticipates that the region will have only about $46.5 billion available over the next 25 years.

The ARC is responsible for development of the Regional Transportation Plan for the city of Atlanta and 18 surrounding counties: Barrow, Bartow, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Coweta, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, Newton, Paulding, Spalding, Rockdale and Walton. As those governments know, there is a big gap between $67 billion and $46 billion.

Having approved the list of projects, the Atlanta Regional Commission has laid the foundation for a new tax to make up the shortfall. The Georgia Legislature already has a joint study committee working on how to fund transportation projects, with their findings set to be released by year’s end. 

One of the primary justifications for a new tax is the apparent funding “shortfall” between the transportation project list and the expected funds available. 

Who can tell whether the region needs every one of these projects? It certainly isn’t easy to decipher from the 389-page list of “constrained” projects, available And it’s impossible to figure it out unless the commission actually prioritizes these projects. 

It’s not difficult. Each project across the region should be evaluated and given a priority based on its ability to:

  • Relieve congestion
  • Improve safety
  • Comply with the Clean Air Act.

Prioritization could be simple. The Priority A list would be made up of the $46 billion most productive projects – that’s the anticipated available funds, after all. The Priority B list would comprise the next group of projects that would provide a significant benefit, though they don’t qualify as significantly beneficial as the Priority A list. The Priority C list might be those projects that are somewhat beneficial, but would not be as productive as the Priority B list. 

ARC models would illustrate the projected 2030 traffic congestion under each of these scenarios, and compare them to a “no build” baseline. (“No-build” scenarios, it must be noted, assume not only that the transportation project is not undertaken, but also that there is no evolution in travel behavior or transportation technology and options.) Even more important, however, is an opportunity to compare projected congestion if only the Priority A projects are built, versus projected congestion with Priority B and C projects. 

An undertaking under these circumstances would give the public the opportunity to approve the Priority A list immediately, then evaluate the Priority B and C lists based on how much additional benefit they would provide, and how much it would take from them in the form of new taxes or user fees. 

It may be that prioritizing the projects does indeed confirm the need for all 389 pages of RTP projects. Some people wonder why the projects weren’t evaluated and prioritized in this manner in the first place. The efforts of transportation agencies and the Governor’s Congestion Mitigation Task Force will ensure that this is no longer the case. It’s paramount, if Georgians are to be persuaded to believe in transportation policy again, that legislators demand the information to make informed decisions.

Ron Sifen, president of the Vinings Homeowners Association and Cobb County Civic Coalition, serves on the Georgia Department of Transportation’s Revive285 Citizen Advisory Committee. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is 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 (November 9, 2007). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and their affiliations are cited.