Moderated by Tom Sabulis
The Georgia Department of Transportation is all about doing more with less these days, as gas tax revenues stagnate and the failed T-SPLOST fades into history. There will be more emphasis on improving existing infrastructure in small but meaningful ways — such as diverging diamond interchanges and variable speed limits. At a recent AJC meeting, GDOT officials also were asked about spending precious state funds on beautifying the Downtown Connector. Their response is included below, and community leaders also defend the downtown gateway project.
Commenting is open below the column by A.J. Robinson and Kevin Green.
By Tom Sabulis
The new leaders of the Georgia Department of Transportation — both engineers, which they say is a first — acknowledged in a recent meeting at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that their department is a big reason why the public has little confidence in state government. In a 90-minute session with editors and reporters, Commissioner Keith Golden and Deputy Commissioner Todd Long talked about their public-relations challenges and other topics:
On the recent AJC survey showing an emphatic lack of public trust in state officials: (Golden) As an agency, we know we need. … to get that back again. We have a lot of work to do. DOT is probably public enemy number one every day when it comes to that, in terms of getting public trust back. We get that. But I’m not sure we’ll ever get to the point where the public is going to love us.
On Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s call for high-speed rail from Atlanta to Savannah: (Long) We talk a lot about how high-speed rail would fit in our strategic vision. It makes sense to have some kind of connection from Atlanta to Charlotte up to Washington, New York and Boston. But somebody has to fund that, and the mechanism we have in place today does not allow Georgia to fund high-speed rail. The gas tax in Georgia is constitutionally bound to roads and bridges. Our General Assembly is probably not going to take that limitation off it, because there’s not enough money for roads and bridges. The mechanism we have in place today just can’t afford to do that. That doesn’t mean (high-speed rail) is not a good idea.
(Golden) We have a lot of (rail) feasibility studies being completed, but I don’t think any of those are going to be self-supporting concepts. So I don’t know how they get off the ground in our state.
On GDOT providing funding for gateway makeovers on highway overpasses in Atlanta when there are so many other needs: (Golden) The Community Improvement District was the one driving that (decision). The state DOT board decided to put to $1.7 million on the three bridges, but the community improvement districts stepped in and said, “We’re going to tax ourselves.” If it’s $5 million of work they want to do and $3.3 is coming from the businesses that are taxing themselves, that’s their priority to do that and make it look better because they feel there is an economic (boost) that comes from that. They convinced our board to leverage a little bit to make that happen. I’ve got bigger needs. But there is another group of people out there who don’t necessarily think like I do, and sometimes the board has to cater to them. It’s a balance.
On T-SPLOST projects in the three central Georgia regions that approved the one-cent sales tax in July: (Golden) I think it will be real interesting to see as the projects start hitting the ground. The governor had us over right after (the vote), and he said, “I want you all to deliver these flawlessly, because I want the other regions to see what can be, what can happen, if you do the right things.” He said, “I want to help those who are helping themselves.” I think success will breed some success, and people might say, maybe that’s not such a bad deal after all.
On whether the nine regions that rejected the sales tax hike will regret their vote and try again: (Long) I think the leadership in coastal Georgia and the leadership in southern Georgia … feel like they could try again, maybe not in two years, but sometime again. Coastal Georgia leaders, in particular, which includes Savannah and Brunswick, feel like they could go back out for a vote; they had a pretty compelling list (of projects).
(Golden) There’s this concern that somehow we’re going to pull back projects from them, but it’s just the opposite. I think you’re going to see the department working with (those regions) more than ever, because they have stepped up to help themselves. I don’t mean we’re going to throw more projects at (them), but when there are opportunities to work with them, that’s the message, help those that are helping themselves.
By A.J. Robinson and Kevin Green
Like many things in today’s global economic climate, we must do more with less, and the days of single-purpose infrastructure are gone. World-class cities today leverage existing structures by making them transformative pieces that serve more than one purpose, such as Manhattan’s High Line and Paris’ Promenade Plantée.
With more than 350,000 vehicles traveling along the Downtown Connector every day, it’s time we look at this stretch of interstate as more than a thoroughfare carrying us from Point A to Point B. The connector is a gateway experience. For many travelers, the glimpse of skyline when approaching the Brookwood Interchange or Turner Field is their first impression of our southern metropolis, and it should be both exhilarating and enticing.
Capitalizing on the magnetism of Atlanta and Georgia is the goal of the I-75/85 Connector Transformation Project. Working together, the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District and the Midtown Alliance will first enhance the look of Atlanta’s signature street with upgrades to Peachtree Street bridges over the connector in both downtown and Midtown, including dramatic lighting, landscaping and bicycle and pedestrian improvements.
The initial work of enhancing and beautifying these two bridges is just the beginning. Over several years, the Connector Transformation Project aims to improve at least three additional bridges, and to positively impact the development of parcels and structures surrounding the connector. For too long, the buildings and land abutting I-75/85 have been underutilized and, as a consequence, ignored. As such, we’ve missed a prime opportunity to brand our city and state. With this initiative, we’re revitalizing a drab landscape and renewing the vistas with striking buildings and lush greenery that is not only beautiful, but functional as well.
The Connector Transformation Project will re-imagine the interstate’s concrete retaining walls and nondescript overpasses with visually appealing creations that will encourage motorists to take a pit stop and explore what lies beyond the exterior of the connector, to experience the true Atlanta. With these improvements, if we can attract just a fraction of the thoroughfare’s annual users to exit and explore, we will have been successful.
Undertaking an initiative of this scale requires patience, persistence and partnership, and changes to the connector won’t happen in an instant. We are fortunate to have the support of prominent backers including the Georgia Department of Transportation, Georgia State Road and Tollway Authority and city of Atlanta. Each of our partners recognizes the importance that the connector holds to the city, state and region, and is committed to helping downtown and Midtown make this vision a reality.
This initiative is more than sprucing up bridges or grabbing the attention of a few motorists. It’s about building something that can make us all proud. The connector is our gateway – it takes us home, to places familiar and new, and beyond Georgia’s boundaries – and we should be putting our best face forward to the millions who experience it each year.
A.J. Robinson is president of Central Atlanta Progress. Kevin Green is CEO and president of the Midtown Alliance.