Lawmakers return to the Gold Dome next week with public expectations for producing, among other hat-dwelling rabbits, a plan to ease traffic jams without Georgians noticing we’re paying for it.
The money’s the thing. We already have more plans than peaches.
Yet another plan landed last week. It came from the transportation planning director, a post created in last year’s contentious reorganization of the Transportation Department.
Plan, plan, plan.
We must have a plan, of course — not least because part of the money solution will probably be a referendum for voters to decide whether to tax ourselves for transportation, and we need to know which projects would be funded. (More on this in a minute.)
As plans go, this newest one is workable. It uses real, mobility-focused metrics to judge the potential effectiveness — and cost efficiency — of various options. An example: Would commuter rail bring more people within a 45-minute trip of major job centers than new high-occupancy toll lanes? (No, say the plan’s authors.)
The authors recognize that most commutes in the metro area today don’t involve downtown Atlanta. They acknowledge that transit has a role to play but that, even in the most optimistic scenario for the next 20 years, transit will move only 8 percent of metro commuters. They also highlight the importance of logistics to Georgia’s economy and the fact that improving the way we move cargo can help with traffic jams across the state.
Good, good, good and good. But money remains the question, and its source has never been more questionable. The state budget is already $3 billion smaller than it was just two years ago, with yet another billion likely to be cut. So, this hardly looks like the time to add billions in spending.
And billions are what we’re talking about. The new plan calls for $39 billion in transportation spending in the next 20 years just to keep pace with population growth and competition from other states. It makes a persuasive case that Georgia’s economy will suffer mightily without action.
Add in projects that would help boost the economy, most of which relate to freight transport — a northwest Atlanta bypass, for instance — and the 20-year figure jumps to $57 billion.
Happily, this plan divides projects into a menu of a la carte items. So to an extent, we can choose as we go, and as funding goes. Up to $15 billion for new projects could come from current funding sources.
But it’s a long way from $15 billion to $39 billion, much less $57 billion. We’re talking about doubling today’s transportation spending levels. And, to repeat, we’re talking about doing it amid budget cuts, an economic slump and, most relevantly, a looming election season.
As I mentioned earlier, one answer is a referendum on funding — probably a penny sales tax statewide or, more likely, regionally. But there may be other options before it comes to that.
First, user fees such as new tolls. A user fee may not be much different from a tax, but at least it’s optional. The plan’s authors contemplate as much as $9 billion by 2030 coming from new tolls. (Warning: They also foresee $3 billion from new parking fees in Atlanta.)
Another alternative is to index the motor fuel tax to inflation. Georgia’s levy is low relative to other states. Because congestion costs metro Atlantans some $3 billion a year in wasted time and fuel, a figure that stands to double, a higher fuel-tax rate could be a wash.
The up-front cost of new projects also could be defrayed by contracting with private firms to fund new toll projects and then keep the proceeds.
However we do it, let’s get on with the doing.