Money talks, especially at the Georgia General Assembly, where the state’s ongoing funding challenges and growing needs inspired separate Senate committee hearings this week, one investigating public-private partnerships (PPPs) for Georgia infrastructure and the other working on integrating metro Atlanta’s public transportation services.
Several challenges are encouraging governments to think outside the box. There continues to be talk about “federal” funds — otherwise referred to as taxpayer dollars — coming to the states, but the partisan divide in federal budget negotiations has left states pessimistic. In addition, it’s increasingly evident that states’ needs outstrip federal largesse, that federal largesse is shrinking and that local governments have to do more with less. More people are aware that cutting out the federal “middle man” would enable states to keep more money at home. Most of all, state leaders are increasingly concerned about the strings attached to such federal funding.
The PPP hearings focus on adding vertical construction — state buildings, etc. — to the already active transportation PPP process. The committee chairman, Sen. Hunter Hill, said his focus is “making our P3 law the best,” the Atlanta Business Chronicle reported. This is crucial, both to the policy and to the state’s credibility; the transportation PPP process has moved in fits and starts, disillusioning the private sector interested in investing in Georgia infrastructure.
Sen. Brandon Beach, who chairs the committee on public transportation, said his committee will “examine possible solutions to the logistics dilemma of our current bus and rail routes in order to better serve metro Atlantans,” and “how independent systems can coordinate and communicate with each other as to provide citizens with the most timely, safe, reliable and efficient ride possible.”
“It was gratifying to see the various transit agencies working with each other to make our transit experience as seamless as possible,” transit committee member Sen. Fran Millar said after the committee’s first hearing.
“The bottom line is it’s going to make people believe public transportation is worthwhile to utilize, integrating the parts all together.
“Paramount to this is that it is as cost-effective as possible,” Millar said. “We do have a responsibility to our taxpayers.”
At the same time as legislators are looking at integrating transit, managed lane projects based on dynamic pricing are taking shape in metro Atlanta. They’re dragging some kicking and screaming into the reality of the future of road improvements: financing by tolls, or user fees. Unfortunately, despite studies that show otherwise, some continue to label express toll lanes and high-occupancy toll lanes as elite “Lexus lanes.”
Three approaches will leverage funding to improve mobility and reduce congestion in metro Atlanta and Georgia:
Think outside the Beltway: Eliminate the federal government to the greatest extent possible so that local governments can focus on local needs instead of Washington’s wants. Local governments should be able to partner on regional projects and have the ability to tax themselves to fund those projects. An example of a recent step in the right direction for prioritizing projects was the state Transportation Board’s vote this month to adopt the Freight Corridor Network; a new law allows for road projects on this network to be exempted from Congressional Balancing.
A managed lane network: User fees — tolls — must be implemented on a managed lane network. Dynamic pricing (that changes with traffic flow) can ensure congestion-free lanes and provide an option for seamless transition for vehicles across metro Atlanta. That corridor can be used to facilitate the integration of public transportation the Senate committee seeks, making mass transit more attractive for choice riders and easing the burden for other using public transportation.
Perfect the PPP process: Hill’s comments on getting the best law are worth heeding. Seeking private sector investment in transportation wherever viable is vital. It reduces federal government’s funding interference and increases state independence and options. Leveraging investors’ funds expedites projects, bringing congestion relief and mobility sooner to Georgians. The private sector’s efficiencies and government’s performance measures increase the chances of project completion on time and within budget.
Milton Friedman noted that “very few people spend other people’s money as carefully as they spend their own.” Thomas Jefferson said, “That government is best which governs least, because its people discipline themselves. If we are directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap, we will soon want for bread.” Georgians are wanting for transportation solutions, and our Founding Father figured out the problem a long time ago. It’s time Georgia embraces the solution and brings the funding closer to its people.
Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation (www.georgiapolicy.org), an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.