Solutions Now, Not Later

Last June, members of the joint Senate/House Transportation Funding Study Committee were warned that Atlanta – with the nation’s fourth-worst metropolitan traffic congestion – would move into second place by 2010 if present trends continued. But by September, we learned Atlanta is already in second place – behind only Los Angeles – three years ahead of schedule.

That revelation is only part of the transportation crisis we are facing in Metro Atlanta and across Georgia.

Elements of the problem, stemming largely from a shortfall in funding for construction and maintenance of infrastructure, were documented by Georgia Trend in October.

Solving the transportation funding problem will require an innovative combination of private funding incentives, improved efficiency, and enabling voters to authorize a 1-cent sales tax dedicated to transportation improvements – capital expenditures as well as operating costs.

Here are a few more nuggets committee members picked up during summer meetings:

• The current motor fuel tax of 7.5 cents per gallon was adopted in 1971. The Department of Transpor-tation’s purchasing power – relative to Georgia’s population – is only 37 percent of what it was in 1980.

• Project delays, coupled with inflation on a cumulative basis, cause costs to skyrocket even further. Of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s original $2.62 billion Regional Transportation Plan for Metro Atlanta, approximately $600 million of the project is on schedule – but at an actual cost of $1.47 billion. It will now cost an estimated $5.95 billion to complete the rest of the project.

• Over the next six years, the state is facing a funding shortfall of $7.7 billion to simply maintain the status quo. There is no money for desperately needed new construction. Spread out over the next 30 years, that shortfall is approximately $200 billion.

• Since 2002, Georgia has paved less than 4 percent of our roads each year. Historically, the state was able to pave 10 percent annually so that every road would be resurfaced at least once per decade. Now that frequency has fallen to once every 25 years or more. And the fact that many of our bridges in Georgia have reached their life expectancy is an eye-opener.

• Worst of all, we have invested effectively nothing toward other modes of transportation. We have done an exceptionally poor job of providing transportation choices for our citizens, especially in Metro Atlanta.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker Glenn Richardson’s intention was not to appoint a special study committee to re-discover and confirm what is already well-known and indisputable: that Georgia has an inadequate transportation system. Our committee’s task – and that of the General Assembly in the upcoming 2008 session – is to fix the problem.

As Professor Michael Meyer of the Georgia Transportation Institute at Georgia Tech told our committee, this is not an either/or issue. It is not rural vs. urban, Atlanta vs. the rest of the state, statewide vs. regional or automobile vs. everything else.

Georgia did not reach this transportation funding crisis overnight, and the problem will not be solved overnight – or by only one means. But it is the study committee’s responsibility to recommend solutions, which must include the following actions:

• Aggressively leverage private money with public money, including the use of “concessions” such as managed toll and high occupancy lanes, public/private partnerships and private equity money.

• Change the DOT culture from a system that is 20 years out of date and instill greater innovation, creativity and efficiency in the state’s design, build and operate functions, through privatization and otherwise.

• Enable voters to implement a 1-cent sales tax, either statewide or regional, that can produce revenues for any mode of transportation and fund capital expenditure as well as operating costs.

For Georgia to perform in a 21st century global economy, we must provide transportation choices. This cannot be accomplished without fixing the gigantic funding shortfall for basic infrastructure. It cannot be accomplished by private funding incentives alone, nor by improved efficiency alone, nor by a 1-cent sales tax alone.

It will take a combination for Georgia to overcome the current crisis. In the next quarter-century, we simply must address the transportation needs of a growing population. The time is now, and we cannot fail to act.

Categories: Guest Commentary