By Kelly McCutchen
To get transportation policy back on track, Georgia must embrace projects with clear impact and broad support, rebalance infrastructure spending and rebuild public trust.
Rebuilding trust involves transparency and reform. Simply streaming Georgia Department of Transportation meetings online, as do many state agencies, will open them to the public. Reform begins with addressing the common complaint of the “alphabet soup” of agencies; consolidating some could simplify governance and cut costs.
Georgians also need to understand how individual projects fit into a long-term vision. For example, Georgia has an opportunity to cut congestion in Atlanta by investing in projects that will divert through traffic away from the metro area. Estimates suggest this could reduce truck traffic in Atlanta 30 percent to 60 percent. This helps improve our freight network and is far more affordable than adding capacity inside Atlanta.
Technology, too, can maximize the value of existing infrastructure. Atlanta should have a premier Intelligent Transportation System: technology to synchronize signals at intersections, dynamically react to incidents and transmit real-time traffic data to drivers. With autonomous, “driverless” vehicles already being tested in real-life traffic, Atlanta should be ahead of the competition.
Transit’s long-term vision should be an interconnected network reflecting commuting patterns. Atlanta’s only realistic network approach is a focus on rubber-tired transit: Bus Rapid Transit vehicles that look and feel like light-rail vehicles. They can escape traffic via HOV, HOT or managed lanes on interstates and dedicated lanes where needed on arterial routes, offering competitive trip times and costing far less than rail.
The state should lead this effort by providing transit funding in metro Atlanta and statewide. Transit enhances economic opportunity by providing access to jobs and education, plus mobility for the disabled or elderly.
How to pay for it? The best policy on transportation funding is not to put all your eggs in one basket. Several possible sources exist.
All new capacity, where possible, should be funded by tolls. Dynamic tolling creates routes that are congestion-free even during rush hours, helping both commuters and transit riders.
Less than half of Georgia’s sales tax on motor fuel is dedicated to transportation. Shift some of those dollars back to transportation. Understandably, this will have to be phased in to minimize the impact on the general fund budget, but it will provide flexible dollars for both transit and roads.
Georgia is among the top 10 in the nation in education capital spending and the bottom 10 in transportation capital spending. Correct this by allowing counties to voluntarily replace the local sales tax that funds education brick-and-mortar projects (E-SPLOST) with a fractional sales tax, up to 1 percent, for education capital spending and/or transportation spending.
This approach enables Georgia to start enhancing quality of life and economic opportunity immediately and meaningfully, without raising taxes.
The Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s proposals are simply a framework to get Georgia moving. Now, Georgia’s leaders must find the common ground for a targeted, fiscally sound approach to transportation that moves the state and the economy forward.
Kelly McCutchen is president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank.