Today’s lead column discusses how MARTA, Georgia Department of Transportation and local community improvement districts are studying heavily traveled corridors, such as Ga. 400, to find transit alternatives that can ease commutes. The trick is creating the public-private partnerships that will pay for them, since there is no state money in the post-T-SPLOST world. In our second piece, a highway engineer endorses a universal per-mile user fee as a fair way to fund new roads and bridges.
Commenting is open below Rod Fogo’s column.
By Tom Sabulis
If you think the thumping of the transportation tax referendum (T-SPLOST) on July 31 means that residents of north Fulton county are happy to stick to their cars, steadfastly uninterested in alternative transit methods, you would be mistaken – or at least not in attendance at recent meeting about the Ga. 400 Corridor Transit Initiative (Connect 400) at the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce in Alpharetta.
Sponsored by MARTA, in partnership with local community improvement districts and the Georgia Department of Transportation, Connect 400 is conducting an 18-month study, due next spring, that will recommend alternative transit options along the 400 corridor, from the topside Perimeter north to Milton and the Forsyth County line.
The study area bulges east and west to include Dunwoody, Sandy Springs and Roswell.
All transit options are being considered — buses, light-rail, a heavy rail extension of MARTA’s North Springs line — and likely a combination of solutions.
East-west connectivity across the corridor is also being considered, said Jason Morgan, MARTA’s project manager on Connect 400. But it’s still due diligence time: nothing has been decided.
The big catch, of course, is that there will be no state funding for any improvements, a point driven home by officials and staff invited to speak.
Sen. Doug Stoner, D-District 6 and a member of the transportation committee, dashed any idea that there would be another tax effort put before voters any time soon.
“The voters have made a decision,” Stoner said, “that they’re not going to look at a funding mechanism in the near future. I just want to dissuade anyone who thinks that we’re going to deal with that issue in the Legislature in the next two years; it’s not going to happen. We probably won’t have this discussion until 2016 at the earliest. Between now and then, it’s going to be getting whatever federal dollars you can get, and the federal government is going to be looking at communities that can build public-private partnerships.”
Brandon Beach, a GDOT board member from Alpharetta, cited the proposed multimodal passenger terminal in Atlanta as the kind of project a public-private partnership can launch by leveraging private money from developers and businesses to attract federal funding. “That’s going to be built with private funds,” Beach said confidently about the mega-effort, still in the embryonic stage.
“There’s going to be hotels, retail, office, residential, and there’s going to be a transit component. When you look at the [terminal] compared to the whole 124 acres, it’s a very small component, but it’s the centerpiece that’s going to make those private dollars flowand pay for that transit facility.”
The terminal’s current price tag is $1.2 billion.
An overflow audience of about 100 people crowded into the Connect 400 meeting, a small but perhaps symbolic sign of the new urgency transportation issues are taking on in the aftermath of the T-SPLOST.
“We’re disappointed T-SPLOST failed,” Beach said, “but we still have a transportation problem. We still have a congestion problem. It’s just we heard the voters loud and clear that they don’t want to increase their taxes to pay for it. We’ve got to figure out ways to improve our infrastructure because when you look at our funding both on the federal level and GDOT level, we have money to maintain [the roads and bridges] we have; we just don’t have money to build new capacity. And we have more people moving here and needs that need to be taken care of.”
By Rod Fogo
It is not surprising that Georgia needs supplemental funding for road projects. Georgia has not chosen to go the supplementary funding route except for Ga. 400.
But any state that has been supplementing its revenues with a major toll road over the past 56 years or more has had a multibillion dollar funding advantage over states that have not.
Georgia has relied mostly on fuel taxes for construction, maintenance and reconstruction of its interstate mileage.
What would have been the effect if all the interstate routes outside I-285 had been built as toll roads?
In that case, no federal or state taxes would have been spent over the last 56 years on any of those hypothetical external toll roads.
Instead, all the money spent outside the Perimeter would theoretically have been available to add to the highway funds within the Perimeter — no small chunk of money.
But that is not all. Toll road customers pay both fuel taxes and tolls. Fuel taxes accrue to the DOT, not the toll roads.
Over 56 years those fuel taxes would have amounted to huge surpluses of additional supplementary dollars for the state DOT.
Another reason Georgia needs supplemental funding is because Federal Highway Trust funds are inequitably distributed. Some states receive more than they contribute.
If Alaska, which gets four times more than it contributes, needs supplemental funds those should come from its own state. It is difficult to see why Georgians and other donor states should have to send that state our needed fuel tax funds.
Federal fuel taxes have not kept up with inflation: It has been 18 years since the tax has been raised.
Highways and bridges, like humans and houses, need more and more maintenance as they age. Postage has inflated by a factor of 15 since 1956. Had federal fuel taxes increased accordingly, we would be looking at 60 cents per gallon rather than 18.4.
Roads and bridges eventually must be rebuilt. The inflated cost to rebuild is many times more than what it cost to build.
Georgia DOT deserves major credit for replacing only the upper surface of the pavement every 10 years on one of the most travelled interstates in the country (I-285) in northeast Atlanta; by this method GDOT likely will be able to extend the full-depth pavement life to 100 years or more.
Retroactively adding tolls to an interstate highway is not the best plan. Neither was raising the sales tax to fund special projects. Nor is allowing electric vehicles to ride our highways for free.
Rather than doing nothing about our deteriorating highways and traffic congestion, it would be preferable if Congress would enact a 2-cent per-mile-driven surcharge applied equally to every vehicle registration without exception.
These supplemental funds should be transferred directly to each state DOT without restrictions. (Emission testers can certify the odometer reading each year when they test vehicles.). After all, a per-mile-driven fee is a more equitable alternative to raising the federal fuel tax, which should, over the next 10 years, be eliminated as the per-mile-driven fee is increased.
Crossroad toll booths are becoming obsolete. But paying for toll roads with “user-pay funds” (fees collected electronically on per-mile usage) will be around for a long time.
Rod Fogo was a highway manager and engineer for more than 40 years. He lives in Dunwoody.