I have rolled up and down I-75 for most of my adult life. From Kennesaw to Atlanta and back, 60 miles each day. I’ve lost tires to shrapnel tossed by big rigs, spun 360s on patches of ice, and navigated past the occasional Friday night drunk.
But what frightens the hard-core commuter more than anything else is the sudden tableau of red brake lights, smoking tires, and the raised rear-end of a car chassis rushing toward him. One panicked stop leads to another and another and another.
Airbags explode, and everything grinds to a halt.
A slow-motion version of that chain reaction, as disturbing as any that ever shut down my northwest passage, is unfolding in the state Capitol.
Last month, Gov. Nathan Deal abruptly cancelled a $1 billion, public-private venture to install reversible toll lanes alongside I-75 and I-575 – the first major overhaul to promise relief for myself and an estimated 199,999 other daily commuters.
In exchange for the private funding, under terms negotiated before Deal took office, the state would have had to agree to limit the construction of new roads in the corridor for 60 to 70 years. In his State of the State address earlier this month, Deal said he was loath to sign away “Georgia’s sovereignty” over such an important traffic corridor.
But the governor promised, in that same speech, that he was looking for another way to finance the project.
That hasn’t been enough for some. One month after the governor tapped the brakes on that I-75 project, Tim Lee, chairman of the Cobb County Commission, tapped the brakes on another.
In a Capitol press conference, flanked by two state senators representing Cobb, Lee last week proposed that the sidelined reversible lane project be added to the list of improvements that would be paid for by a 10-year, penny sales tax – if metro Atlanta voters approve the levy on July 31.
In exchange, Lee – and Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews — recommended that Project No. 35 on a list of 157 be sacrificed. Project No. 35 is a rapid bus transit line that would operate between Atlanta and Acworth – and contains the first promise, however faint, of a rail line outside Fulton and DeKalb counties.
Lee and Mathews were on the roundtable of metro Atlanta political leaders who hammered out the list. Their proposal to “sacrifice” the first expansion of commuter rail in metro Atlanta this century is a measure of how hot the topic remains in Cobb. It is no secret that Lee is up for re-election – his future and that of the sales tax for transportation will be settled on the same day.
There are serious problems with Lee’s idea. First, changing the list would require an act of the Legislature. The same bill needed to “fine tune” Cobb’s list of projects might rapidly expand to include adjustments in other corners of the state – a can of worms if ever there was one.
Also keep in mind that tea partyers oppose the sales tax, and have friends in the Capitol. And many a piece of legislation has been helped to death.
If, by some chance, Lee’s argument prevails, then we have another problem. Voters would be asked to levy a penny sales tax on themselves, for a road that would then require a toll each time it was used.
“If Georgia builds it, it’s still the taxpayer’s money. It’s just a matter of which pocket it comes out of,” Lee said in an interview Friday. But that is not an argument that backers of the sales tax want to be making this summer.
Then there’s the matter of transparency: The list of projects was the result of an extraordinary – and largely – open series of negotiations among elected officials representing 10 counties in metro Atlanta. Deals cut in the Capitol are likely to be much less open to public inspection.
“Our concern would be what the voters’ reaction would be to a changed project list after they’ve participated in the process over such a long period of time,” said Bert Brantley, spokesman for the metro Atlanta referendum campaign.
So we come back to the $1 billion for those reversible lanes up I-75 and I-575. If the governor were to point to a likely funding source, that would make this whole fracas moot, wouldn’t it? Why, yes, said Lee on Friday.
Last week, state Rep. Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, introduced HB 806, a bill that would free up $1.1 billion in unused motor fuel tax revenue languishing in the hallways of the state Department of Transportation – cash assigned to other projects and thus out of reach.
A portion of that cash is likely to find its way into Cobb County. Other sources will be tapped as well, said Brian Robinson, a more than slightly ticked-off spokesman for Deal. “The governor took the major step of heralding this project in the State of the State address, signaling its priority status. When this … project was shelved, the governor said we’d still get it done and he meant it,” Robinson wrote in an e-mail Friday.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider