Visions for the transportation department

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

The new chairman of the state transportation board recognizes that Gerogia officials need to improve their relationship with the public in order to win any future additional tax support for our network of highways. Today’s second columnist urges the state to encourage investors and enlist more public-private partnerships, while insisting that all motor-fuel tax revenues go to fix transportation problems.

Commenting is open.

GDOT’s next project: Build public trust

By Jay Shaw

For nearly 30 years, I have held elective office in Georgia and been involved, at one level or another, in shaping and implementing public policy. For 10 years, I had the power of a small-town mayor; for another 16, the influence of a state legislator. Now, as the new chairman of the State Transportation Board, I have perhaps my greatest opportunity to make a difference.

Georgia is a special place to live and work. Whether it remains so depends to a great extent on what we do about transportation in the days ahead. Our coming transportation decisions will shape our economy and quality of life for generations to come — in small towns and rural counties such as my hometown of Lakeland in Lanier County; in busy, crowded Atlanta; and in cities and counties of all sizes in between.

To a large extent, we already know the things we need to do; the things we’d like to do – make our roads safer; expand Metro Atlanta’s managed-lane system, its transit options and pedestrian facilities; launch a robust passenger rail system; build more economic development highways in rural areas; develop a designated network of freight corridors to serve our logistics industry; and help the state’s general aviation airports grow.

That’s an agenda representing many tens of billions of dollars — dollars we don’t have and won’t get from our existing funding sources. Forty-six proactive Georgia counties took a step forward last year by approving Transportation Investment Act (TIA) Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax investments in their communities. But 46 of 159 aren’t near enough. We will soon need to revisit – and resolve – how we intend to pay for the transportation system we want and need.

Before that, however, the Georgia Department of Transportation has work to do. The TIA vote last summer opened our eyes to a deep disconnect between the department and its constituents. We learned the transportation board and the department must convince legislators, local elected officials and the public that we are good partners, trustworthy stewards of their money, and that they really would get something worthwhile in return for any new transportation investment.

That is my most immediate priority as chairman. Georgia DOT is, after all, a taxpayer-funded, customer service industry. It has 4,000+ talented and dedicated employees, but in the course of complying with all the rules and regulations imposed upon it, the department can lose focus on customer service. It is not a problem unique to Georgia DOT. The public has shown time and again at all levels of government that it will no longer tolerate poor service. If the transportation board and the department expect to someday be given the resources to do all those things I outlined earlier as critical to our future, we first must prove to our many audiences that every decision we make and every dollar we spend is in their collective best interest. Do that and everything else will take care of itself.

That’s why keeping Georgia DOT consumer-friendly is my Job One.

Jay Shaw is chairman of the state transportation board.

Find private partners and lose the politics

By Benita M. Dodd

That congestion and transportation challenges in Georgia have taken a back seat for a while can be attributed to the region’s economic woes: Unemployment keeps commuters off the road. As the economy improves, however, traffic logjams will return.

Our transportation bottlenecks include roads, transit, funding — and the image of the state Department of Transportation (DOT). The recent upheaval in the DOT is over, but the perception of inefficiencies and mismanagement lingers. Transparency is key to overcoming public mistrust. An easy start is to stream DOT meetings online so that citizens across the state can view the process for themselves.

Of course, after last year’s regional transportation sales tax (TSPLOST) referendum failed in nine of 12 regions across the state – including in metro Atlanta – funding continues to be a challenge that policy-makers, the legislature and the DOT must overcome. It’s time to stop looking to Washington for solutions. Those funds come with strings attached, and the federal bureaucracy’s priorities rarely are in sync with Georgia’s.

The state DOT’s leadership understands the need to find funds through the private sector. Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are crucial to getting projects expedited and completed efficiently; tolls on managed lanes can help fund much-needed infrastructure. Unfortunately, after years of battling the DOT as the PPP process has been refined and reworked, many private investors are rightfully skittish.

Part of the problem appears to be a bureaucratic reluctance to relinquish “control” of transportation. The DOT leadership must lead by example and demonstrate its willingness to embrace private investment, indeed, to insist that staff actively seek out opportunities to include PPPs.

The 2012 TSPLOST vote showed jaded Georgians’ reluctance to give more money to transportation. There’s an easy solution. The DOT must convince the legislature to dedicate 100 percent of the state motor fuel sales tax to transportation. Just three-fourths of the 4 percent tax goes to transportation; 25 percent goes into general revenue. With an improving economy, the state can afford to allocate all funds to transportation and lead by example.

The hodgepodge in the TSPLOST project list reflected the politics in the decision-making process. That was on a large scale, but it highlights the DOT’s everyday challenges in prioritizing projects. The disconnect between transportation “needs” and “wants” often can be traced to a legislator’s desire to impress constituents. While downtown streetscapes and bike trails are nice to have, the DOT must work to allocate funds based on congestion relief and mobility and avoid the latest “smart growth” trends that do not move Georgians quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively from Point A to Point B.

Overcoming politics requires outreach to legislators and local government to promote an understanding of budget and policy decisions. Showing them how the pieces fit together will create a cooperative relationship instead of a combative one, and a better transportation agency in the process.

That congestion and transportation challenges in Georgia have taken a back seat for a while can be attributed to the region’s economic woes: Unemployment keeps commuters off the road. As the economy improves, however, Georgia’s logjams and bottlenecks will return.

The bottlenecks in transportation policy are not just in roads, transit or funding. It’s also in the image of the state Department of Transportation (DOT). The upheaval in the DOT over the past several years is over, but the perception of inefficiencies and mismanagement linger. Transparency is key to overcoming public mistrust. An easy start is to stream video of DOT meetings online so that citizens across the state can view the process for themselves.

Of course, after last year’s regional transportation sales tax (TSPLOST) referendum failed in nine of 12 regions across the state – including in metro Atlanta – funding continues to be a challenge that policy-makers, the Llegislature and the DOT must overcome. It’s time to stop looking to Washington for solutions. Not only do those funds come with strings attached, but the federal bureaucracy’s priorities rarely are in sync with Georgia’s.

The state DOT’s leadership understands the need to find funds through the private sector. Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are crucial to getting projects expedited and completed efficiently; tolls on managed lanes can help fund much-needed infrastructure. Unfortunately, after years of battling the DOT as the PPP process has been refined and reworked, many private investors are rightfully skittish.

Part of the problem appears to be a bureaucratic reluctance to relinquish “control” of transportation. The DOT leadership must lead by example and demonstrate its willingness to embrace private investment, indeed, to insist that staff actively seek out opportunities to include PPPs.

The 2012 TSPLOST vote showed jaded Georgians’ reluctance to give more money to transportation in Georgia. There’s an easy solution. The DOT must convince the Llegislature to dedicate 100 percent of the state motor fuel sales tax to transportation. Just three-fourths of the 4 percent gas tax goes to transportation; 25 percent goes into general revenue. With an improving economy, the state can afford to allocate the funds to transportation needs and lead by example.

The hodgepodge in the TSPLOST project list reflected the politics in the decision-making process. That was on a large scale, but it highlights the DOT’s everyday challenges in prioritizing projects. The disconnect between transportation “needs” and “wants” often can be traced to a legislator’s desire to impress constituents. While downtown streetscapes and bike trails are nice to have, the DOT must work to allocate funds based on congestion relief and mobility and avoid the latest “smart growth” trends that do not move Georgians quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively from Point A to Point B.

Overcoming politics requires outreach to legislators and local government to promote an understanding of budget and policy decisions. Showing them how the pieces fit together will create a cooperative relationship instead of a combative one, and a better transportation agency in the process.

Benita M. Dodd is vice-president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

21 comments Add your comment

kt

October 8th, 2013
10:31 pm

Regarding Mr. Shaw’s suggestion that building “economic development highways” in rural Georgia is a good idea- no, this kills small towns, it destroys local businesses. Rural towns in the southern part of the state especially used to thrive before GDOT started its GRIP program. Now supersized freeways circumvent these small towns, and nobody stops at the local businesses anymore. The new highways have only fast food, Autozones, Family Dollars, etc. and travelers are shopping at these. The GRIP program is a TRAVESTY- it’s tragic that BILLIONS have been spent at the detriment of small towns and have killed so many local, small businesses. Terrible- this boondoggle should be exposed, especially since there are still projects that haven’t started that will cost many millions more, feeding the troughs of the road building lobby. It’s shameful that Chairman Shaw believes this should continue.