Get Georgia moving again on transportation
[Editor’s note: A version of this commentary was published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution April 27, 2014.]
Georgia’s economy is picking up, and with it the daily traffic congestion as growing numbers of commuters travel to jobs. Inertia followed the failure of the 2012 transportation sales tax (TSPLOST) in nine of 12 regions, but it’s time to move forward on transportation.
Georgia still needs funding. Congress’ stalemate and growing national infrastructure demands are shrinking the federal pot. At home, even if Georgia legislators possessed the political will to increase it, the state fuel tax remains a source of diminishing funds. It’s tougher to fund infrastructure maintenance and repairs, let alone enhancements, amid erosion by greater fuel efficiency, more alternative-fuel vehicles and money going to programs that do little to ease congestion.
Clearly, Georgia must wean itself off the feds and work to implement state-based transportation priorities for its growing transportation needs. Funding projects such as fixed guideways, road diets, streetcars and streetscapes take away taxpayer dollars needed for mobility improvement and congestion relief. The strings and environmental overregulation tied to federal funds delay projects, increase costs and reduce Georgia’s flexibility and ability to prioritize.
There are existing funding sources. One penny of every four from the state gas sales tax goes to Georgia’s general fund. That’s 25 percent! Voters will be far more receptive when the state dedicates existing taxes. Then, enable a fractional sales tax for Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes (SPLOST). Local governments would have the flexibility to divvy up an existing penny tax instead of adding a penny.
It’s also time to prioritize user fees through tolling and, ultimately, Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) charges once policy-makers can allay privacy concerns. All motorists pay when a road is tolled. Electronic tolling eliminates booth delays and interstate reciprocity agreements facilitate payment.
Tolling is not just a funding mechanism. Dynamic (time-of-day) tolling is also “congestion insurance,” guaranteeing a trip time while motorists consider the value of their route and timing of their trip. A network of express toll lanes along interstates will provide seamless transition across metro Atlanta, not only for automobiles but for buses (whose users are now stuck in the same congestion), increasing the attractiveness of mass transit.
As for public transportation: Private options such as Uber, Lyft and Megabus should be encouraged, not handicapped. It’s way past time for Atlanta to increase the number of taxi medallions. And efficiency, cost-effectiveness and need should govern transit decisions.
For Georgia, the benefits of technology in transportation and safety are enormous: improving traffic light timing and synchronization; embracing GPS-based, real-time smartphone apps for transportation – including public transportation; working to accommodate the arrival of autonomous (“driverless”) automobiles; and making the NaviGAtor intelligent transportation system more responsive to incidents and not just informational.
Finally, adding capacity is not simply a matter of adding lanes but of removing vehicles. To that end, enabling through traffic – passenger and freight – to bypass metro Atlanta will free space within Atlanta. Completing and enhancing developmental highways, including U.S. 27 and the Fall Line Freeway, will free Atlanta of gridlock and open Georgia’s roads.
[Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.]