By Benita M. Dodd
Transportation policy may not have been the priority during the legislative session, but in the long shadow of the Gold Dome, proposals, plans, ideas and reports were moving right along. And now that the regular legislative session is over, expect greater focus on the good, the bad and the ugly of future transportation decisions for Georgia.
There’s no denying Georgia needs to spend more on transportation infrastructure. Congestion that is currently mitigated by economic woes will worsen as more people go back to work and companies grow again. The devil, however, is in the details. Taking transportation policy down the wrong road – a prime example is metro Atlanta’s spending wish list of $13.5 billion for mass transit and just $8.5 billion for roads – is worthless. Happily, there are tried-and-tested approaches that can improve mobility and add capacity, for the economic engine that is Atlanta, as well as across the state.
Fast-forward with technology: From toll roads to transit, policy-makers should contract with the private sector to ensure transportation dollars are focused on cutting-edge technology. Government planning usually begins with a simplistic “what if we do nothing” model then continues with increasingly complicated/costly “what if we …” assumptions. But just because government does nothing doesn’t mean innovation stands still. And private-sector technological ingenuity usually outpaces government (case in point: municipal broadband). Today, there’s an “app” for almost everything, from where to buy cheaper fuel, to real-time alerts for travelers with route alternatives and cell-phone text messages that help transit riders schedule their trips.
Divert unnecessary traffic. Ignore the adage that “you can’t build your way out of congestion.” Adding capacity is not just a matter of building roads, it’s also relocating vehicles that don’t need to be crowding roads. Some surrounding counties already are thinking outside the box, with Paulding County leading the charge for a $2 billion Western Commercial Connector toll road that diverts traffic around metro Atlanta. An estimated one-third of freight traffic on metro Atlanta roads is passing through; a viable detour would make a significant dent in congestion. That, along with a network of toll lanes offering an option in congested corridors, would encourage travelers to consider the value of alternative routes, modes and times for their trip.
Fund needs, not notions. If metro Atlanta’s regional wish list is anything to go by, local officials are looking at what they’d like, not what residents need. Georgians will consider a regional transportation special local option sales tax (T-SPLOST) in July next year. It’s crucial that local governments offer them bang for the penny. Cobb County, for example, is cutting bus routes because of budget shortfalls, but seeks a billion-and-a-half dollar rail line from MARTA’s Arts Center to Acworth. Atlanta would like $1.6 billion for its Beltline “transit and trail,” after embracing light rail over more cost-effective bus-rapid transit. (Hint: 78.5 percent of Georgians drive alone; 2.5 percent use public transportation.)
Focus on freight, not passenger, rail. Georgia’s ports are gearing up for massive expansion and the state needs to be ready to accommodate the freight increase – or neighboring states will. Clogging freight lines with costly commuter and “high-speed” trains will divert cargo, resulting in more truck traffic and reducing mobility on roads.
Wherever possible, welcome the private sector to the table: Numerous private coach operators are chomping at the bit to bid for intercity transportation needs. Outsourcing mass transit operations can improve efficiency and cost-effectiveness. As managed lanes become part of a high-occupancy toll (HOT) lane network, private-sector involvement can save taxpayers money, expedite improvements and free much-needed funds for use elsewhere in Georgia’s transportation infrastructure.
Promote federalism instead of fawning to the feds. He who pays the piper calls the tune. Cobb County asked for a federal assistance for its promising Northwest Corridor HOT lane project and was rejected, as was a grant request for Savannah’s port connector road. Yet MARTA was given money for solar panels and Atlanta for an unnecessary street car. Plus Georgia is a “donor” state in the federal highway program, according to a Heritage Foundation analysis: Over the past half-century, the feds have returned just 86 percent of the federal fuel taxes Georgia motorists paid into the trust fund.
Ultimately, restoring decisions to the state will allow local priorities to take precedence over projects tailored to Washington’s whims. Because until mobility drives Georgia transportation policy, Georgians will go nowhere fast.
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 (April 29, 2011). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.