Slow Going, But Georgia’s Moving on Tackling Congestion

By Benita M. Dodd

Pointing fingers, moving the target and playing the blame game: That’s about all the action on transportation seen at the State Capitol this past session, despite the rancorous discussion immediately after the regional transportation sales tax vote that failed in nine of 12 regions across the state.

The lack of movement was as unsurprising as congestion in metro Atlanta on a weekday afternoon. Legislators seemed in a hurry to leave, dragging their feet on acting on taxes, transportation or tort reform, all of which seriously need an overhaul. That was understandable, too. They faced the unpopular options of prioritizing a tight state budget or raising taxes.

Fortunately, beyond the Gold Dome, transportation policy has been chugging along – and in at least one way – in the direction the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s “Plan B” sought: a HOT lane network. Reversible high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes are planned along I-75 in Henry and Clayton counties south of Atlanta and I-75/575 Northwest Corridor, while an expansion of the I-85 demonstration HOT lane project is planned in Gwinnett County to add capacity with new lanes.

These are promising steps toward a seamless, metrowide network of HOT lanes that will allow motorists and transit to transition from one highway to the next without merging into general-purpose, “free” lanes. Variably priced tolls help fund transportation, but even more important, maintain a congestion-free lane and encourage motorists to evaluate their trip timing and route. HOT lanes also provide a more attractive ride for bus passengers, who are no longer stuck in jams and can reach their destination faster.

Public transportation plays an important role in providing mobility in metro Atlanta. Buses provide more flexibility than rail – or streetcar boondoggles – at lower cost, and can reach more transit-dependent Georgians. Growing ridership highlights the popularity of express bus service, which takes cars off the road. The Legislature’s partial funding of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority for express bus service was a temporary resuscitation, but local governments and transit providers must find ways to achieve greater self-sufficiency. Transit providers must be urged to embrace managed competition, outsourcing, partnerships and in-house efficiencies to minimize the taxpayer burden and rider subsidies.

Technology also has a massive role to play in reducing congestion as well as improving transit trips. Georgia’s investment in intelligent transportation systems gives motorists warning of approaching problems. Synchronizing traffic lights improves traffic flow. Now, providers must employ the smartphone “apps” to help with public transportation: Studies show that not knowing when the next bus or train will arrive is the biggest turnoff for passengers. In Atlanta and other cities, an app allows one to quickly summon a car service through; a “Where’s My Bus” app could help, too.

The next step for Georgia is to be ahead of the curve on autonomous cars. The state should boldly go where Florida, Nevada and California have gone and legalize these driverless cars. Considering that in 50 percent of wrecks the driver is entirely to blame and in 90 percent is partly to blame, taking the driver out of the equation and allowing technology to pace and distance cars can only improve lane capacity and traffic safety.

Tolling, embracing technology and diverting superfluous traffic, both trucks and automobiles, around the metro areas instead of through them, are necessary. Along with that, restore private investors’ confidence in Georgia; public-private partnerships have been tripped up too often. Waiting for the federal government to send money to Georgia is a wasted effort. There isn’t enough. Plus, the strings attached to federal transportation dollars tangle the state in Washington’s agenda.

For the past few years, congestion has been held at bay in Georgia because a listless economy keeps jobless residents home. As the economy recovers, traffic will worsen. The state can get ahead by continuing to focus on transportation policy solutions that work, on needs rather than the wants and politics that doomed the regional transportation sales tax project list.

Looking down the pike, state transportation agencies are moving slowly but surely in the right direction for mobility and congestion relief. Sometimes, less is more. And so, it appears, less legislative intervention is proving more productive.

Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent, state-focused 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 5 2013). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.