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

SAWB

October 7th, 2013
4:37 pm

Mr. Shaw states that there is “a deep disconnect” between the Department of Transportation and their constituents. While I agree this is probably true the bigger disconnect is between the political leaders and the taxpayers. TSPLOST failed not because Georgia’s Citizens don’t want improvement in our transportation infrastructure, but because we don’t trust our political leaders.

The previous list included way too many pet projects that would not have enough positive impact on the region as a whole. Going forward projects need to have a substantive impact on transportation and not just more pork to assist in reelection or as rewards for political cronies.

Whirled Peas

October 7th, 2013
4:49 pm

Bernie

October 7th, 2013
5:05 pm

SAWB @ 4:37 pm – Bravo and well said for a poster, whom I am usually at odds with his opinions.

Grrrrr

October 7th, 2013
5:52 pm

When Benita references “bureaucratic reluctance to relinquish control of transportation”, would she be alluding to private corporations’ inclusion of language in their contracts prohibiting state or local govenrments from implementing transportation impovements within close range of their toll roads? Because that’s a load of BS and exactly the kind of thing taxpayers need to be protected from.

Dusty

October 7th, 2013
7:18 pm

Oh please——-

Jay Shaw says his job is keeping GA-DOT consumer friendly.

Forget making friends, Mr. Shaw. Just build good roads and consumers will be very friendly.

And Benita Dodd, pack your bags and head for Washington. Immediately! They need you a lot more than we do. Tell THEM how to overcome politics and get cooperation. Good luck!.

SAWB

October 8th, 2013
12:31 am

Bernie –

The thing is I bet many of us agree on more issues than we disagree on or at least are close enough that we could reach some kind of consensus. However, we let politicians use wedge issue to divide us so they can retain their political power. It would be nice to see a leader that could put away some of the more divisive issues for an election cycle and focus on the “kitchen table” issues that really impact the majority of citizens.

[...] Georgians with advice for GDOT on the road ahead (AJC) [...]

John Williamson

October 8th, 2013
8:46 am

Great analysis, Benita. It’s hard to have confidence in the Legislature when they used blackmail to promote TSPLOST (reducing the state share of funding to regions NOT approving TSPLOST, Approval would have dumped billions of dollars into DOT which gives it the ability for political favoritism PPP’s are a great idea as long as they aren’t underwritten with taxpayer dollars.

MANGLER

October 8th, 2013
8:54 am

I grew up in Southeast Florida, where the NIMBY attitude is rampant. The Atlanta metro seems to have the opposite issue. Rather than refusing to let things get built or improved nearby, as is the case down South, here people only want improvements that they can directly see and immediately feel rather than something that will benefit the region as a whole over time. That’s where this mistrust of ‘pet projects’ comes into play. Every project is someone’s pet project, period. The focus needs to be on explaining why this road will be worth it to the people who don’t live or work on that road. This train line will be good for you, even though you may not ever use it, and here’s why. This extra 1/2 a cent tax in your County will do this for you and it’s a positive thing because we’re attracting more businesses into this business park, even if you don’t ever go there. Etc. This is one of the most divided places I’ve ever seen. Getting people to see themselves Atlantans as a symbol of metro pride and not as a pejorative is the only way people will agree to move forward ’round here.

Atlanta Lady

October 8th, 2013
9:12 am

We do NOT need more managed lanes. No one wants them but the government. We need better transit options and a solution to the few highway bottlenecks that back up traffic throughout the grid (400/285, 75/85, and 85/285. The on-ramps and off-ramps for the connector in Midtown are so screwed up that they back up traffic for the whole city. Flyovers would help solve that problem.

Road Scholar

October 8th, 2013
9:44 am

Mr Shaw: You listed many of the transportation improvements needed not only in Atlanta, but statewide. I suggest you decide what we need and then find the revenue to implement those projects. Stop crying”whoa is me!”. The state has not increased its gas tax since the early 1980’s. Have you heard of inflation? Have you heard of transit? Have you heard that vehicles are more efficient and use less gas, thus the revenue is down? Have you heard the general displeasure with PPP? That might work on the highways, but what about the arterials???

Miss Dodd: Does you opinion count more if you say the same thing twice? PPP is not the only answer, esp for arterial and transit and bikes. Sorry to tell those legislators from Gainesville, but people are turning to bikes for transport and recreation. I suggest your “stellar” drivers to slow down, leave earlier, and not to place other people in jeopardy because of their arrogance and lack of patience,and poor driving skills.

Road Scholar

October 8th, 2013
9:51 am

Mangler: The only people in Atlanta who will accept transportation improvements are those who want them…away from their neighborhoods!

Mr. Shaw: How about cutting the roadside, cleaning the drainage inlets to prevent ponding on the roadways, and cleaning the utters along the road to let them drain?
Dodd: If the state was really serious about reconstructing the unsafe and obsolete I285/SR 400 interchange, why didn’t they go to the voters and suggest that the toll on SR 400 be continued to back bonds for the reconstruction of that interchange and the ones immediately adjacent to it???? Lack of planning?

Road Scholar

October 8th, 2013
9:54 am

Mangler: It is no longer just NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard).

It is BANANA”S: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything!

Outer Perimeter

October 8th, 2013
10:00 am

@Road Scholar-It’s always refreshing when you weigh in with (I assume) the voice of experience. It’s also good when “LastGaDemocrat” weighs in with input.

Dusty

October 8th, 2013
10:53 am

Do we have any professional engineers working at Georgia’s DOT? I know they ran off the lady engineer with a PhD because she fell in love (with the wrong person they said)..

OH well, back to the chat about making friends and feeling good. That always helps when you are stuck in traffic.

Perception

October 8th, 2013
11:22 am

Here are a few suggestions for improving perceptions among the public (in no particular order):

1. Stop taking the BS stimulus money just to put in spy cameras on every intersection along with those massive black traffic light poles. They might be fine at some intersections, but I know of several that have been made FAR worse and even some with those hideous black structures that hold NO lights (yeah, just for decoration).
2. At an intersection, if there is only 1 turn lane, have only ONE turn signal. Having two only confuses folks when they approach the intersection if they are unfamiliar (and it wastes money).
3. Stop overusing both the KEEP MOVING and YIELD signs simply because you cannot properly design an intersection or don’t want to have to “deal” with all the traffic backing up from one direction. I especially see the KEEP MOVING signs on freeway offramps where cross traffic is going way too fast or merging into the turning lane thus preventing anyone from safely continuing with their turn. Even worse, when an idiot cop is behind you and you are trying to be safe, he/she will blow their horn at you and motion you to proceed. A stop sign would make more sense. And what is the issue with YIELD for right turns? If as the law requires, I am supposed to yield on a green, now I am supposed to figure out if the person turning left will actually go or not. Meanwhile the person turning left has to wonder if I will actually see the sign, actually stop, etc. One should not have to guess what will happen when one comes to an intersection. What is wrong with the old standby law that virtually every other state follows – if the light is red, you stop and turn right when it becomes safe and if the light is green, the person turning right has the right of way and the person turning left into that same path only goes when it is safe??? Consistency every time, not wondering if there is or is not a Yield sign or if anyone will obey.
4. Stop installing pointless and overpriced “old time” streetlights everywhere. They are just overpriced, serve no purpose, and we all know that they are just a way of rewarding your “friends” with our money. Even if the DOT isn’t responsible for this waste, they are on the street so we figure its you.
5. Make it easier to find where to report a street light problem. Anyone who has ever driven by the old Ford plant (now the future home of Porsche) knows that the lights are working correctly less often than a broken clock is correct. None of us appreciate the safety hazards that broken lights, poorly timed lights, etc. cause and we would all like to get them fixed quickly – so help us out and make finding the right person straightforward.
6. Time the damn lights for crying out loud. Everyone knows the massive improvement in traffic that would come with light timing improvements. You clowns installed these massive light beams, all the spy cameras (yeah, they are supposed to replace the roadway sensors – whatever, they still clock speed and spy on everyone) all down LaVista in Tucker and none of the lights are well-timed or if they ever are, its lasts about a day before they are all screwed up again. Get it together. Roadway management is not supposed to be just a giant money transfer scheme to line the pockets of your friends and vendors.

MariettaMike

October 8th, 2013
12:00 pm

For GDOT to understand the trust problem, they should start by looking in the mirror and doing a thorough assessment of their recent past:

Their attitude is an entrenchment of the NIH (not invented here) syndrome. They make decisions then have perfunctory public hearings that have all the appearance of fait accompli. The current administration will not be satisfied until the complete highway system is privatized. Don’t they remember that plank roads did not survive? They need to get the public involved very early in the process with decision makers present rather than a designated foil.

The GDOT needs to have something like an Inspector General or Auditor General to see if Georgians are getting what has been paid for. A salient example is the camera system on the interstate highways. For the amount of money and inconvenience while installing, it should be a stellar system. In stead, we are saddled with a system that has cameras out of service for long periods of time, are aimed at bushes and poles rather than the highway, are out of focus and otherwise have extremely poor photographic quality, and to be a fiber optic transport layer system, the refresh times are pathetic. In addition, the facets of the system are not well coordinated. For example, a recent banner posted warned of a major accident in Cobb County on I-75 SB; however, the accident was not listed on the incident tab of the 511ga.gov.

It is closer to the truth than a flippant statement to say it GDOT only hires graduates of the William Tecumseh Sherman School of Resource Management.

Bernie

October 8th, 2013
12:30 pm

SAWB @ 12:31 am – BRAVO! I am with You Brother…we must come together, I agree.

For we ALL have been, Fooled, lied too, Had, Took, Bamboozled! Hoodwinked and Run Amok by every politician in Georgia. They all do it in our FACES and with a smile.

They count on our own divisiveness to keep that way!

Time For a Change and lets flip the Script on these DTR’s ( Day Time Robbers)

Stephen Edwards

October 8th, 2013
1:18 pm

1) GDOT should go visit NCDOT and see how they’re able to constantly be building hundreds of miles of new interstate-quality highways. They spend $5 billion a year on maintenance and new construction, yet their gas prices are almost the same as Georgia’s.

2) “Managed Lanes” are NOT a solution. Triple the gas tax and use 100% for NEW HIGHWAYS.

3) Build NEW East-West alternative to I-285. Other cities have 2 or 3 loops around their metro areas.

4) Remove excess sign bridges in Gwinnett and adjust Jimmy Carter Blvd. overhead structure. It’s so off kilter it makes Georgia look like “Hee Haw”

5) Install new LANE-MARKING REFLECTORS metrowide. If you aren’t going to build any new roads,
make the existing ones as good as possible.

6) Improve quality standards for Highway Signage. It seems to be hallmark for Georgia’s road signs to have sloppy placement of text and highway shields, missing dots on the “i”, etc. This is the State of Georgia talking to you. the impression it leaves on people cannot be overemphasized.

7) Add relevant overhead signage on important secondary roads and junctions with interstates. How can NC afford overhead signage on most of its state and Federal highways system-wide?

8) Convert key arterial roads to Superstreets. This requires left-turning traffic to make u-turn beyond intersection thus eliminating need for left-turn phase of traffic signal. Traffic flow improved just like diverging diamond intersections recently added here. Other states have been addressing this for decades. Investigate “Michigan lefts”, “Jersey jug-handles”, and “NC Superstreets”.

Bernie

October 8th, 2013
2:26 pm

Stephen Edwards @ 1:18 pm – I admire your thinking and suggestions to make transportation in Georgia better. But when I think of the current and past political environment. There is in NO way, any of it, is remotely possible. For Georgia has Far to many Fingers and Crooks who want and demand a piece of the ACTION.

Our decision makers at the GDOT and the STATE,CITY,COUNTY governments always consider variables Like Chamber members, politicians,friends,family, church members, Neighbors, business associates, social associates, campaign donors, fraternity and sorority brothers and sisters, The Wealthy among us and the unknown and unseen criminal element. ALL who are vying for State Dollars associated with each project.

This is OUR REAL and Main PROBLEM! when it comes to the drain of revenues to prevent such movement forward.

For example as stated previously in another post. The former Mayor of Atlanta Shirely Franklin who has yet not been out of the office of the Mayor a mere (4) Four years has a financial interest in the
current (10) Ten Million dollar and counting Trolly project in Downtown Atlanta. A TRUE fact that has been verified by our own Moderator Tom Sabulis himself. Although not illegal, but STINKS to HIGH HEAVEN of Political Cronyism. An ALL too common occurrence with any Big dollar taxpayer funded project anywhere in Georgia. Not until we as concerned citizens STAND UP and demand a cease of
such shenanigans, we will continue to be taken to the cleaners by the well connected political insiders. However, I do not see any change in the forseeable FUTURE of addressing such issues.

So in the end being said We ALL will settle for the SOS (Same ole SHI@#) that will be put forth for consideration. Issues, Neither of the Fantasy story writers above, are willing to address and deal with on a proactive basis on behalf of the Taxpayers and citizens of Georgia.

It just will NOT HAPPEN! Not Now nor in the Forseeable Future.

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.