State transportation officials have pulled the plug on the $1 billion “express lane” project on I-75 and I-575, thanks in part to behind-the-scenes pressure from Gov. Nathan Deal.
Reportedly, the “public-private partnership” envisioned to finance the deal was becoming less and less of a true partnership. The taxpayer subsidy demanded by investors in the project had grown from $300 million to $450 million or more, while still leaving control, operation and profits in private hands.
If that’s indeed the case, the cancellation was wise. But what now? The abandonment of the I-75 project ought to be an alarm bell alerting taxpayers to a deeper, more troubling problem. This is the second time that a toll project in that corridor has been proposed to private contractors and then withdrawn. As AJC reporter Ariel Hart points out, Georgia has now invested more than $50 million in that effort with nothing to show for it.
Why? Because transportation planning in this state continues to be plagued by a lack of focus, direction, vision and accountability. The state Department of Transportation is seeking its fourth commissioner in four years and is hamstrung by a divided board. Apparently, nobody can run the place. The department itself has been split in two by legislators, with a commissioner performing some functions and a state planning director performing others. At times, the State Road and Tollway Authority, a separate agency, seems to take the lead; at times it doesn’t. The governor’s office also plays a powerful role from time to time, as it apparently did in this case, but intervening when needed is not the same thing as providing steady guidance and vision.
In addition, the state Legislature has punted funding problems to regional agencies around the state, in effect telling local governments that if they want to build transit projects, they’re on their own. But state officials balk at giving those regional agencies the authority needed to operate transit efficiently. It is a mess, and that mess grows out of three unresolved problems:
– State officials, particularly in the Legislature, cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that mass transit is a necessity. Admitting that things have changed, that metro Atlanta has grown to the point that it has to pursue transit aggressively just like every other major metro region on the planet, represents a profound cultural shift that some Georgians aren’t ready to accept.
– The state needs to commit more money to transportation. It cannot build a world-class logistics and supply system founded on its ports and do it on a starvation transportation budget. It cannot attract corporate headquarters and biotech to a region choking in traffic. Passage of the 1-cent transportation sales tax in metro Atlanta next year represents the minimum of what must be done. “If we don’t pass it, the signal is disastrous,” economist Donald Ratajczak warned the Council on Quality Growth this month. “It makes us very difficult to attract anybody.”
Unfortunately, the sudden cancellation of the I-75 toll project only adds to the perception of indecision and incompetence, making passage of the sales tax less likely. Which lead us to …
– The state needs a rational, professional and accountable system of transportation decision-making. Competing visions, agendas and bureaucracies do not work. Every step taken in the last 20 years has served to cloud rather than clarify lines of responsibility, and we are reaping the consequences.