Even the through travelers know it: Georgia’s transportation system is inadequate. Metro Atlanta has the seventh-worst congestion in the country, the freeway network lacks capacity for expected growth from the Port of Savannah deepening, and rural areas lack transportation options.
There is an opportunity to develop a quality transportation network — without raising taxes — if policy-makers embrace a new proposal by the Reason Foundation. Unlike existing plans, which make spot improvements, the Reason plan, unveiled in August at a Georgia Public Policy Foundation policy briefing luncheon, is a $35 billion proposal that develops a freeway network, arterial network, and transit network across the state.
For metro Atlanta freeways, the plan modifies the existing managed lane network plan, which is endorsed by state leaders, the Department of Transportation, Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, Atlanta Regional Commission, the Transit Planning Board and the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. Unlike the I-85 high-occupancy toll lanes demonstration project in Gwinnett County, all of these managed lanes will be new lanes. Currently, the network is less than half funded, causing GDOT to cut back this essential network.
For Atlanta, the plan would implement a primary arterial (surface street) network. Atlanta has one of the most underdeveloped arterial networks of any major U.S. area. In addition to providing regional travel, arterials provide an alternative to congested freeways. An accident on I-285 creates major congestion, in part because there is no alternative route. Eleven primary arterials throughout the metro area would use existing roads as much as possible to reduce costs.
Outside metro Atlanta, the plan recommends several new freeways and selected widenings. They include new freeways both south and north of Atlanta and upgrading existing four-lane roads to expressways or freeways east and west of Atlanta. The current Georgia freeway design funnels all traffic though Atlanta. The new freeways would allow through traffic to bypass Atlanta entirely. This benefits all parties, giving through travelers an alternative to Atlanta’s congested highways, reducing traffic volumes in Atlanta and promoting economic development outside metro Atlanta.
The new freeways would connect Rome and Commerce, Macon and West Point, LaGrange and Chickamauga, and Macon and Commerce. Columbus, Macon and Augusta would benefit from freeway widenings. Savannah would benefit from freeway widenings and improved highways linking the Port of Savannah to I-16, I-516 and I-95. The proposal includes at least one (and typically many more) project for each of Georgia’s 159 counties.
Statewide, the proposal also uses Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS). GDOT has developed an award-winning ITS system. But it is underused. The current ITS system could be used to reduce congestion, on freeways and arterials, by synchronizing and remotely adjusting traffic lights; controlling variable speed-limit signs; queue warning and automated enforcement. ITS systems should be a vital component of the primary arterial network.
Statewide, the plan creates a cost-effective, quality transit system. Current plans to create an expensive rail transit network have no realistic funding source. For the cost of three light rail lines, metro Atlanta could build a comprehensive bus rapid transit and express bus network. Supplemental state funds would fund local bus service in every county that contracts or operates service. Vanpools, casual carpools and demand-response vehicles can supplement this network in lower-density areas. A new mobility center would help coordinate intercounty transit service. The managed lanes and ITS system would make transit more attractive by providing passengers with a consistently congestion-free trip.
The best part of the $35 billion plan for Georgia is it can be largely funded with existing revenue. Georgia will need to fully use public-private partnerships to build and operate the lanes. With PPPs the private sector brings 50 percent of the resources ($7.2 billion for metro Atlanta) to the project; it is unlikely the full network could be built without PPPs.
Despite what some believe, PPPs do not restrict the state’s ability to improve parallel roads. Had Georgia used a PPP to build the Northwest corridor (I-75/575), the state would have been able to build a new parallel highway 10 feet away. Nor do PPPs eliminate Georgia jobs. They increase jobs by employing Georgia residents to build highways the state could not otherwise afford to build.
Even with PPPs, current plans fund only half of statewide needs. And current plans rely on the federal highway fund and the federal transit fund, which are scheduled to go bankrupt over the next four years. Maintaining existing federal funding levels would require a substantial tax increase, which is unlikely.
The Reason plan relies on consistent state funding. It dedicates all taxes paid on gasoline to transportation. This includes several changes: (1) dedicating the portion of the gasoline sales tax (1 percent of the 4 percent) that goes to the general fund to transportation; (2) dedicating the local special purpose sales tax paid on gasoline to transportation; and (3) eliminating gas tax exemptions for all travel on paved roads. The proposal also uses PPPs, loans, bonds and value capture to provide additional support.
Baruch Feigenbaum is a Senior Fellow with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and a transportation policy analyst with the Reason Foundation (www.reason.org).
The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent, state-focused think tank that proposes 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.