Transportation challenges

Sea change at Georgia DOT

With a shrinking budget and work force, the Georgia Department of Transportation battles an image problem over past projects, political appointments and minority contracting. But it’s fighting to adapt. Engineers are putting out the message that GDOT is trying to be more nimble when addressing traffic problems. We provide excerpts from a recent editorial board meeting with department leaders. Also, a conservative transportation expert details metro problems with the T-SPLOST defeat.

Commenting is open below Glen Bottoms’ column.

By Tom Sabulis

Like many businesses in recent years, the Georgia Department of Transportation has had to reduce its work force. “We’re down from some 5,700 to 5,800 employees a couple years ago to about 4,400 today,” Commissioner Keith Golden says. The 22 percent cut leaves the GDOT having to reinvent itself just to deliver basic services, from highway and transportation planning to mowing the grass. Golden, chief engineer Gerald Ross and engineering division director Russell McMurry recently talked about the challenges their department faces. Some topics they touched on (speaker’s name in parenthesis):

Communication with public: (Golden) “I think the most important thing for us as we move forward is trying to tell the public what we are doing, where we’re trying to make changes, and what that level of service is going to look like as we go to reduced funds. Our federal program is somewhat flat and our state motor fuel is somewhat flat in terms of our collection and revenue.

Overcoming perceptions: (Golden) “One of the more frustrating [things is that] GDOT does not pick the projects for the majority of the state. In metro Atlanta, it’s the Atlanta Regional Commission that does the planning. We have a seat at the table but, at the end of the day, the regional commission picks the projects. We certainly have influence to help shape those. But, generally speaking, when you talk about metro Atlanta, we’re one piece of the planning puzzle. And yet many times the public’s perceptions is that GDOT is picking these projects.

Faster fixes: (Ross) “We started something called Quick Congestion Projects around metro Atlanta. We took a little pot of money and went out and found areas [where] we could do quick [fixes], like adding lanes to ramps. I think that was a big sea change for the department, looking at how to get things done quickly, effectively and try to keep costs down. I live in Henry County and we have one right now on Jonesboro Road. Most people probably wouldn’t realize what we’re doing, but we just took the shoulder out, added a right turn lane and we’re going to reduce congestion by over 80 percent. It probably didn’t cost us $250,000. It would be nice for people to know that we’re at least trying to look at that.”

Engineering innovation: (McMurry) We’re engineers, we try to fix things. Five years ago, we would [have tried to] redesign that [Jonesboro Road] interchange,” instead of doing the small quick fix. “We look at things now a lot more as innovation, because we have to do our best with less. ”

Opening the Georgia 400 shoulder — “flex lane” — to traffic during rush hour: (Golden) “That drew a lot of attention, taking advantage of that asset during the time you need it. That’s probably one of the things you’re going to see us continuously have to do with the amount of funding and revenue that are coming our way.”

Diverging diamond interchanges: (McMurry) There’s so many more opportunities along those lines, to use innovative things that are relatively cost-effective. You’re not building these mega-projects any more. That’s really where we’re headed as a department now; every state is doing the same. Innovation is really the key going forward to improve mobility.

Down the road: (Golden) “Our challenge is going to be making sure we’re taking care of our core functions. We’ve got to mow the grass, pick up tires, keep rest areas and welcome centers clean. We’ve got look at things that make sense to contract [out]. We just contracted out our I-95 maintenance. We’re looking at a reduced work force, so what do you do? What a lot of people don’t realize is, we don’t have a trash pickup crew. We don’t have a ditch-cleaning crew. We don’t have a grass-mowing crew; they’re all the same people. And as those numbers contract, something’s got to give. The trash goes a little longer before it gets picked up, the grass grows a little bit longer before it gets cut.”

By Glen Bottoms

As conservatives, we believe in low taxes, limited government, friendly business environments and policies that foster economic development. But unlike many conservatives, we believe in public transportation, especially rail transit.

We think conservatives have ample reasons to support transit, from economic prosperity, to national security concerns (transit reduces reliance on foreign oil over the long term), to securing mobility that sparks economic development and attracts investment to regions like Atlanta.

Last month, Atlanta turned down an historic opportunity to begin to escape from the maw of deadening, job-killing congestion. It was apparently too much to ask the majority of Atlantans to set aside distrust of politicians and Georgia DOT to spend taxpayer monies wisely (not that they wanted to spend it in the first place). With the referendum, they had the opportunity to send a message. They also may have peeked at the price tags of many projects and concluded they may be a tad overpriced. If so, they were right.

We sympathize with the dilemma the Atlanta region faces. Massive government spending on highways while providing minimal support for public transportation has produced a predictable maelstrom of congestion. The future of Atlanta looks grim.

Perhaps the solution is to look at the Atlanta region for what it really is, a fractionalized electorate with disparate attitudes, goals and aspirations. The outer tier of counties apparently want no part of downtown Atlanta and would prefer to isolate themselves fiscally and, apparently, transportation-wise. To their credit, the inner suburbs and urban core of Atlanta are seeking solutions that would bolster the attractiveness of urban living and capitalize on trends that show a significant surge back to the central city.

However, each depends on the other. One part of the region cannot unilaterally pursue a separate strategy simply because they currently don’t have the resources to do so. Failing any attempt to reform the current system and establish viable revenue streams to fund transit and highways, should we allow these separate counties and localities to pursue their own solutions? This may be the practical solution — one our conservative philosophy would embrace — but from a regional standpoint, this would need some clarifying measures to retain a regional focus. After all, this is a region with all the synergistic and symbiotic relationships that go along with it.

The real issue here is reform of governance. Antiquated governmental structures are major impediments to progress. The challenge is to provide the ability of the state to embrace and absorb change, to empower and move the region toward a truly balanced transportation system. Unfortunately, I see no hint of that happening. That said, we would recommend smaller initiatives at lower jurisdictional levels. In our minds, problems should always be addressed at the most local level possible. In the Atlanta context, a coordinating council could be formed, comprised of key political and civic leaders from across the region, which would recommend nonbinding options to localities. The advisory council would encourage outcomes compatible with regional focus and provide input to funding agencies (Georgia DOT, Atlanta Regional Commission, etc.) regarding the efficacy of projects pursued by localities. This would require some innovative thinking (backed by political muscle) to have any chance of succeeding.

Thomas Jefferson certainly had it right when he said, “Institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

Take heed of these words. Your future well being surely depends on it.

Glen Bottoms is executive director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation in Arlington, Va.

22 comments Add your comment


August 29th, 2012
10:37 am

As a person that resides in the suburbs of Atlanta I find the suggestion that we think Atlanta should fend for itself a bit simplistic. Certainly the majority of folks I talk to think Atlanta’s priorities and those of the outlying areas are not lined up very well. There is a perception that any time we are willing to extend assistance to our friends ITP, there will be an expectation that it is a never ending supply. What gives me pause is that most if not all ITP projects (MARTA in particular) are not built and managed for long term success and will always be grown to outpace their abilities to pay for things. That really makes me reluctant to pitch in to what looks like a flawed system managed by people unwilling to fix what they have. The TSPLOST allocation for MARTA was destined to only fund maintenance. The idea that it requires a special tax in order to fund what should be paid for from within their conventional revenue structure sounds like a very bad idea.

Chris Sanchez

August 28th, 2012
6:43 pm

@Head in the Sand: I agree that engineers should be planning the roads. Unfortunately, any funding mechanism will have to go through a political process. Oddly enough people are rather stingy with the money they have earned. I have no doubt that a project list that can be completed within the allotted period of time (say ten years) and will actually address traffic congestion will have no problems with funding. Personally, I had no issue with the notion of a SPLOST for this purpose. My issue was dumping over half of the funding into transit which supporters own experts openly stated do nothing to address traffic congestion.