Last month, the State Road and Tollway Authority voted to break a long-standing public promise and extend tolls on Ga. 400.
Public reaction was overwhelmingly negative, but it didn’t really matter. SRTA has just one elected member on its board. And that person, Gov. Sonny Perdue, is leaving office in January and knows he will never have to face the voters again.
In other words, SRTA is basically unaccountable to the people, and is designed to be. It may control public assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars, assets that generate many millions more in annual public revenue, but SRTA could — and did — take its vote without real regard to public input.
The Ga. 400 decision is hardly the first time that promises have been broken to the people of Georgia regarding tolls. Revenue generated by Ga. 400 was supposed to be used only within that corridor, but in 2002, when SRTA was under the control of then-Gov. Roy Barnes, the agency quietly rewrote its bylaws to drop that provision. It then arranged the diversion of $10 million in toll revenue to buy seven acres of land near Atlantic Station, ostensibly for a transit project that never materialized.
At the time, Barnes and SRTA were also eyeing toll revenue from Ga. 400 to help finance the ill-fated Northern Arc, a superhighway then proposed to link I-85 and I-75 across the northern exurbs. That too never materialized.
More recently, in 2009, the state Transportation Board — another public entity with no direct accountability to the public — voted to reverse a 2005 pledge to the people of Georgia never to convert existing highway lanes into toll lanes. As a result of that policy change, north and southbound HOV lanes on I-85 between Chamblee Tucker Road and Old Peachtree Road in Gwinnett County are now being converted into tolled lanes, and similar tolling projects are already in the planning stages.
The newly tolled lanes will be “managed lanes.” If they get crowded and traffic flow begins to slow, tolls will automatically rise to discourage drivers from using them. In effect, such a system represents a gesture of surrender by transportation planners. Unable to increase the supply of transportation options, they have turned to reducing demand as a way to keep traffic flowing.
If all of this sounds like a convoluted, contorted way of making public policy, it is. Step by step, over time, the public is being herded into grudging acceptance of policies that, given an open debate, it would probably reject out of hand. And along the way, difficult decisions that ought to be made by people accountable to voters are instead being handed off to quasi-public agencies that are insulated from public pressure.
But the truth is, we’ve given public officials very little choice but to behave in such a fashion. They are responding in a somewhat logical fashion to what is really an utterly illogical and, in the end, destructive situation.
According to a national transportation study released last week, the United States invests just 0.6 percent of its GDP on transportation annually. That’s half as much as China, Russia and central and eastern Europe and a third as much as Western Europe, which is investing 1.85 percent of GDP on transportation.
“The United States can’t compete successfully in the 21st century with a 20th century transportation infrastructure, especially when its chief trading partners … are making significant investments in cutting-edge transportation technologies,” the report states.
That’s not news to transportation planners at the federal, state and local levels. They know all too well that they’re starved for investment capital. For example, the prime source of federal transportation funding is the gasoline tax, which stands at 18.4 cents a gallon. It hasn’t been increased since 1993, when gasoline was selling for less than $1.10 a gallon.
So today, we’re paying close to triple that amount for gasoline to fuel our cars, but not a penny more in taxes for the roads and bridges on which to drive those vehicles. And our elected leaders at federal and state levels don’t dare try to increase that amount.
To some degree that’s a failure of leadership. Most people in elective office lack the courage and vision to make what ought to be a convincing case for more investment in our basic economic infrastructure. Instead, they plot inefficient, convoluted ways of squeezing money out of a distrustful American public, in the process making voters more distrustful still.
And in the long run, it’s not going to work. As the report concludes:
“The United States, which once invested prodigiously in transportation infrastructure, has for more than a generation now leaned ever more heavily on assets built in an earlier era.”
In other words, we’re out of fuel and content to coast.