Given the T-SPLOST’s drubbing by voters, it’s tempting to shove dialogue about our ongoing congestion problems into a far corner of the civic closet and leave it there for a long time to come.
That shouldn’t happen. Our transportation troubles didn’t disappear with the closing of the polls July 31. That makes all the more notable the new proposal, “Getting Georgia Moving,” by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Unveiled at the group’s recent legislative forum, it deserves broad attention and full consideration, particularly by the elected officials who now seem loath to even utter the word “transportation.”
This latest concept isn’t a telephone book-thick “Plan B” of the type generated many times through the years, and that’s good. It’s instead a thumbnail sketch that can hopefully get our community’s minds thinking once again on this critical issue. Specifics can, and should, come later, but the conversation should begin now around the broadest of themes. Such grassroots effort can begin pushing the Gold Dome toward version 2.0 solutions.
Needed work statewide won’t be cheap, and the conservative-thinking foundation suggests a multi-pronged funding scenario that doesn’t center on new taxes. It suggests changes to the state gas tax, including targeting more of the motor fuel levy toward transportation. That so-called “fourth penny” now goes toward other uses. Phasing in this change could make available $150 million a year, or $1.35 billion over a decade.
The foundation also suggests paying for new road capacity through tolls. That can prove an efficient way to let users directly pay for improvements, an important factor when little new expansion is otherwise likely.
Funding is important, but it’s clear the T-SPLOST went down in large part because voters weren’t keen on the regional project list. GPPF was smart enough not to craft a new list, choosing instead to offer broader concepts. They include building upon the Intelligent Transportation System built for the Olympics, which provides real-time information to travelers. An improved ITS network could even aid transit users. Smartphone apps, for example, could summon taxis to transit stations, or advise of other “last mile” travel options to final destinations, which could boost ridership.
The foundation also touts bus rapid transit, which offers a cheaper, more-flexible alternative to rail expansion, which has proved a voter lightning rod in Atlanta. A snazzy bus using a dedicated lane (or sharing a HOT lane) could let this cash-strapped region better link workers and jobs in more places. In the short term, at least, BRT seems a worthwhile compromise between the status quo and continuing to push unpopular rail transit proposals.
The think tank also urges needed, smaller-scale improvements to arterial roads, such as turn lanes or bus lanes along shoulders.
Another strategy that could greatly relieve congestion here would be improving roads far outside Atlanta to create better bypass routes for freight trucks. Successful completion of work to upgrade and link existing rural roads could divert 30 percent to 60 percent of truck traffic from metro Atlanta, or the equivalent of up to 100,000 cars daily, according to GPPF statistics.
The foundation also smartly urges “support of MARTA because of its critical importance,” noting for example that “traffic on the Downtown Connector would be negatively impacted if the MARTA Rail system were to fall into disrepair.” The plan thus includes $10 million a year for MARTA maintenance costs.
The GPPF also urged allowing two or more counties to join together on projects. In the Atlanta metro area, this seems a practical way to let adjacent counties address commonly felt problems. That would hopefully make it easier to build consensus and support.
Drafting a Plan B won’t be easy, but the work must begin, both in the legislature and in town halls across the region. We hope the GPPF’s outline will jumpstart the process.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.