That congestion and transportation challenges in Georgia have taken a back seat for a while can be attributed to the region’s economic woes: Unemployment keeps commuters off the road. As the economy improves, however, Georgia’s logjams and bottlenecks will return.
The bottlenecks in transportation policy are not just in roads, transit or funding. It’s also in the image of the state Department of Transportation.
The upheaval in the DOT over the past several years is over, but the perception of inefficiencies and mismanagement linger. Transparency is key to overcoming public mistrust. An easy start is to stream video of DOT meetings online so that citizens across the state can view the process for themselves.
Of course, after last year’s regional transportation sales tax (TSPLOST) referendum failed in nine of 12 regions across the state — including in metro Atlanta — funding continues to be a challenge that policy-makers, the Legislature and the DOT must overcome. It’s time to stop looking to Washington for solutions. Not only do those funds come with strings attached, but the federal bureaucracy’s priorities rarely are in sync with Georgia’s.
The state DOT’s leadership understands the need to find funds through the private sector. Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are crucial to getting projects expedited and completed efficiently; tolls on managed lanes can help fund much-needed infrastructure. Unfortunately, after years of battling the DOT as the PPP process has been refined and reworked, many private investors are rightfully skittish.
Part of the problem appears to be a bureaucratic reluctance to relinquish “control” of transportation. The DOT leadership must lead by example and demonstrate its willingness to embrace private investment, indeed, to insist that staff actively seek out opportunities to include PPPs.
The 2012 TSPLOST vote showed jaded Georgians’ reluctance to give more money to transportation in Georgia. There’s an easy solution. The DOT must convince the Legislature to dedicate 100 percent of the state motor fuel sales tax to transportation. Just three-fourths of the 4 percent gas tax goes to transportation; 25 percent goes into general revenue. With an improving economy, the state can afford to allocate the funds to transportation needs and lead by example.
The hodgepodge in the TSPLOST project list reflected the politics in the decision-making process. That was on a large scale, but it highlights the DOT’s everyday challenges in prioritizing projects. The disconnect between transportation “needs” and “wants” often can be traced to a legislator’s desire to impress constituents. While downtown streetscapes and bike trails are nice to have, the DOT must work to allocate funds based on congestion relief and mobility and avoid the latest “smart growth” trends that do not move Georgians quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively from Point A to Point B.
Overcoming politics requires outreach to legislators and local government to promote an understanding of budget and policy decisions. Showing them how the pieces fit together will create a cooperative relationship instead of a combative one, and a better transportation agency in the process.
(A version of this commentary appeared in the Oct. 8 edition of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)
Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, 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.