Dwindling gas tax revenue

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Today’s lineup: As gas tax revenues plummet, metro Atlanta could build its coffers for highway maintenance, repairs and expansion by tolling all its highways, says one columnist. The Georgia Department of Transportation ‘s deputy commissioner reminds us of all the low-cost innovation going on to ease traffic. And a John’s Creek resident writes about his evolution from driver to “clean” commuter.

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Charge drivers per mile to fund repairs

By Robert Poole

If I asked “Would you like to pay more tolls?” you’d almost certainly answer, “No.” But the wiser answer is, “It depends. What would I get for this?”

What Georgia residents could get is better interstate highways — and there is probably no other realistic way to bring that about. Georgia’s interstate highways are the state’s most important transportation infrastructure. They account for less than 3 percent of all highway lane-miles but handle 26 percent of all vehicle miles traveled.

Georgia ranks 23rd out of 50 states for the condition of its rural interstates and second-best in the country for the condition of its urban interstates. So what’s the problem?

Good maintenance can do only so much. Major highways are built with a design life of 50 years. Many of Georgia’s interstates are nearing that mark and will need substantial reconstruction over the next two decades. And Georgia’s urban interstates are notoriously congested; nearly 47 percent of lane-miles are congested on any given day.

Why isn’t more money being spent on these vital arteries? Georgia’s main highway funding source is a combination of federal and state fuel taxes, but neither has been increased since the early 1990s. Between inflation and increased fuel economy, these gas taxes produce less than half as much real revenue per mile driven as they did two decades ago. Under new federal mileage standards, new cars must go twice as far on a gallon of gas by 2025, so per-gallon fuel taxes will produce far less revenue by then.

That explains why Georgia and other growing states can afford routine highway maintenance, but can’t afford to spend much on widening heavily congested corridors or rebuilding worn-out highways.

Georgia needs to replace per-gallon fuel taxes with some form of charging per mile driven. Such a funding source already exists on I-85’s express lanes. All-electronic tolling is simple, inexpensive to collect and a proven method for financing major highway investments. It would provide an ideal funding source for rebuilding and modernizing Georgia’s ailing interstates, replacing per-gallon fuel taxes.

The Reason Foundation’s new nationwide study assessed the feasibility of using electronic tolling as the funding source to modernize the interstates of all 50 states. Georgia faces a major reconstruction bill over the next 20 years: $26 billion. It also has a substantial widening need, estimated at $19 billion.

Most states, including Georgia, could pay for the needed reconstruction/widening of interstates with an average toll of 3.5 cents per mile for cars and 14 cents per mile trucks. This toll would replace gas taxes for all interstate travel.

With tolling, needed high-dollar projects can be financed based on the projected toll revenue stream. The huge backlog of improvements in Georgia could be in place much sooner than under the pay-as-you go system the Georgia Department of Transportation uses for highways.

Georgia, like all other states, needs to phase out the declining 20th-century fuel tax and replace it with a revenue source that will keep pace with growth.

Robert Poole is director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.

Innovation a small price for efficiency

By Todd Long

Last week, State Transportation Board Chairman Jay Shaw wrote of the importance of customer care: It is no less important to a government agency providing services than to a private concern marketing products.

Quality customer service is as much about the “how” as the “what.” For the Georgia Department of Transportation in metro Atlanta, the “what” is obvious — more convenient mobility and access. The rub is in the “how.”

Already, there are more metro Atlantans than residents of 30 states, and growth continues unabated. Building an urban expressway is expensive; just one more lane on a metro interstate costs upwards of $3 million a mile; a new interchange is more than $30 million. (And those prices don’t include what often is the costliest part – the right of way on which to construct.) Even if money was abundant, is a new lane the answer when even now our interstates flow freely some 18 hours a day?

All this has caused Georgia DOT to rethink “how.” We’ve come to realize the need not just to grow our transportation system, but to maximize its existing capabilities; to wring from it every modicum of mobility.

An obvious need is clearing roadways of crashes and breakdowns as quickly as possible; every minute traffic is stalled requires as many as seven to recover. So we’ve broadened the number and range of the Highway Emergency Response Operators – our HEROs. In a unique partnership with the Department of Public Safety, Georgia DOT also funds state troopers dedicated to responding to incidents so traffic keeps moving.

Peak-hour shoulder lanes on sections of Ga. 400 help move southbound morning commuters faster. And new connector distributor lanes along part of I-20 are producing astonishing time savings of nearly 200 percent. We’ll apply both innovations elsewhere.

The award-winning diverging diamond interchange at Ashford-Dunwoody Road and I-285 is so successful, there are five more in the works.

Ramp meters on entrance ramps have improved interstate traffic flow by 14 percent.

Our Regional Traffic Operation Program is a multi-jurisdictional, cutting-edge, signal-timing program; department engineers actively manage and synchronize more than 4,000 traffic signals on some 18,000 miles of roads and streets. They have improved traffic flow and reduced stops by nearly 10 percent.

Roundabouts instead of signalized intersections can result in safe, efficient traffic flow at a fraction of the cost.

Our new “Quick Response” operational improvements program allows us to expedite projects like restriping or installing medians or turn lanes — small efforts that yield big improvements to drivers.

Next year, we’ll implement variable speed limits on the top end of I-285 – a program that will enhance motorist safety while reducing travel times.

Big issues and challenges remain. But every minute and every dollar we save through innovation help us move forward and better define the “how” of Georgia DOT’s customer service.

Todd Long is deputy commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Clean commute means quality time

By Ben Assaf

For me, commuting isn’t an either/or proposition — drive or take transit? Carpool or telework? I’ve found that multiple options can work for the same commute, and I often mix it up among carpooling, riding the bus, taking the train, walking and teleworking.

I used to drive a total of 40 miles each day from my home in Johns Creek to my office in Buckhead, and my only routes were down Ga. 141 or 400 – both traffic-packed options that could take more than an hour each way. I thought that riding a bus to a train station, taking the train a few stops, then walking to work wou-ld take longer than my drive, but then I thought about all the free time I’d gain as a rider rather than a driver. Those hours could be spent catching up on emails, reading or sleeping. Plus, I’d be saving significantly on gas and car repairs.

Initially, I was happy just driving seven miles to the bus stop instead of all the way to work, but then I discovered my neighbor worked across the street from my office and realized I could improve upon that short solo drive to the bus. I approached him, and we decided carpooling would make that part of the commute easier. I don’t work in Buckhead anymore — my work destination is now Sandy Springs — but I still maintain the belief that carpooling when I can, taking transit and walking can sometimes take even less time than driving alone, and that my choice actually creates usable time, saves me money, keeps the air cleaner and puts me in a better mood.

Since I began clean commuting in 2005, I’ve been able to reduce more than 64,000 vehicle miles from metro Atlanta roads and keep more than 32 tons of pollution from the air we all breathe. I would also estimate that I’ve also saved close to $33,000 in fuel and maintenance costs.

In addition to saving quite a bit of money, I also find I’m a lot less grumpy, especially in the afternoon. No longer do I have to grip the steering wheel for an hour. Instead, I’m able to read every day, which is a big motivator to keep choosing commute options. I love to read, but never felt I could take the time after spending two or more hours driving every day. I’ve also developed quite a talent for napping while sitting up.

The final piece of my commute puzzle is telework. On days when I have an appointment near my home, or my kids have practice or a game, I avoid the commute altogether and work from my home office. It’s great to be there when my kids get home from school, and I’m actually able to accomplish more when I don’t have to spend my time traveling.

The Clean Air Campaign, which facilitates the Georgia Commute Options program, has been a great resource for me. Because I often brag about the gift cards I’ve won just for logging my commute trips and the money I’ve saved, I’ve been able to convince quite a few of my co-workers to give commute options a try. I’ll definitely continue to encourage others to look into cleaner, greener ways to get to work. I’m happier and richer because of it.

Ben Assaf is principal applications engineer for Oracle.

4 comments Add your comment

Don

October 15th, 2013
2:38 pm

Ben Assaf has found “big truth”! When I started riding express bus service from Sugarloaf Mills to Midtown years ago, I found:

1) I get to work ready to go and get home less grouchy and tired.

2) I don’t care about how bad the traffic is on I-85 – even when the bus gets stuck in it -I’m usually asleep or reading. Not a minute of my life is wasted having to drive in traffic.
3) I have avoided having to buy a new car and my car insurance is much cheaper. I used to drive 15,000 miles a year to work. Now it’s less than 5,000 – and it’s always close to home.
4) The bus is cheaper than gas + parking (even at a sketchy surface lot)

That each bus takes 30-50 cars off of I-85 is good justification for paying for it’s operation out of tax revenue. It greatly slows the need to expand capacity. GDOT might just have to find some other work to do!

TBone

October 15th, 2013
9:29 am

Ah those unintended consequences. You have the gubmint force gasoline standards on manufacturers for the greenies and get more efficient machines on the road that use less fuel.This equals less tax revenues. Here’s an idea; take all those sudsidies going to ethanol production and steer those to raods and bridges. There ain’t enough money to go around folks. The gubmint is a huge junkie hooked on ever growing tax bases.

Another Voice

October 15th, 2013
6:23 am

“Big issues and challenges remain. But every minute and every dollar we save through innovation help us move forward and better define the “how” of Georgia DOT’s customer service.”

What an understatement, Mr. Long!

“We’ve come to realize the need not just to grow our transportation system, but to maximize its existing capabilities; to wring from it every modicum of mobility.”

Another understatement.

Kudos on letting an insurance company expand the HEROS program for you. After all, it’s their money, but GDOT takes the credit for their effort.

Peak-hour shoulder lanes on sections of Ga. 400 help move southbound morning commuters faster. Want to really see improvement, widen the exit ramp at Northridge so that it is two lanes all the way up to the traffic signal. Left-turn and straight-ahead onto Roberts on the left side of ramp, right-turning to head to Dunwoody can keep moving up the ramp.

That diverging diamond – clever. Wish you’d light these and mark the lanes better, though. In nighttime, especially with rain, it’s a hazard…

Ramp meters on entrance ramps have improved interstate traffic flow by 14 percent. Maybe so, but the backups on surface roads is the tradeoff. Try southbound Peachtree-Dunwoody Road after 4 pm for an example of “success.”

How about applying that “customer service” mentality to improving the way various jurisdictions work on mass transit? Obviously we have plenty of “customer demand” on the top-end Perimeter, yet we have no mass transit solution. A bus connection from Doraville MARTA or even the Park-Ride lot at Indian Trail to Perimeter Mall MARTA and then to the Cobb Transit station at Cumberland Mall/Galleria would be a HUGE step forward.

SAWB

October 15th, 2013
12:12 am

Sort of funny that the government has mandated more fuel efficient cars and now the revenue is down, so they want to toll and/or tax us. It reminds me of the issue with water a few years ago when we were asked to conserve which of course like good citizens we did. The utilities then wanted to raise rates to offset the revenue loss.

As for the idea of tolls I see the logic in using tolls to fund new roadway projects. However, adding tolls to existing roadways is wrong. Remember many of us have paid fuel taxes for years to build those roads and now someone is proposing charging a toll for us to use them.

It would really be nice to have some pro-growth leaders along with impartial economist making these decisions instead of the bunch of ideologues we currently have at the Federal and State levels.