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Fixing Georgia’s transportation woes

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POSTED: February 21, 2008 5:00 a.m.

After months of hearings and discussion, the Georgia Legislature’s Joint Study Committee on Transportation Funding has released its final report on "Addressing Georgia’s Transportation Funding Alternatives." Its recommendation? In a word: everything. 

The 18 broad recommendations include options for both statewide and regional transportation funding options, either from a revenue-neutral replacement of the fuel tax or a one-cent tax increase "dedicated for use on all modes of transportation." The committee also recommends a five-year statewide transportation plan; a legislative transportation oversight committee; a council to coordinate rural and human services transportation; and legislation defining the authority of Georgia’s numerous transportation agencies.  

It proposes a resolution urging that the federal highway and transit program be turned back to the states; a state infrastructure bank for transportation projects; a feasibility study on high-occupancy toll lanes; increasing the frequency of design-build projects and supporting the concept of value engineering, seeking "optimum value by balancing performance and cost." And it weakly recommends a resolution urging the Department of Transportation to award project contracts, "where suitable,"

using public-private initiatives. 

Oh, yes, and a resolution supporting a MagLev train, specifically "using the Transrapid technology," between Atlanta and Chattanooga.   

The plan’s not all bad and, to be kind, it’s quite likely the disclaimer in the final report serves to explain why so many discombobulated recommendations are cobbled together: "Although Committee members did not agree on all aspects of the findings and recommendations, a general consensus was reached to move forward with a final report from the Committee as a whole."  

But the goal of the committee was to "study the state’s transportation funding needs and to recommend any actions or legislation necessary for alternative funding mechanisms, including special funding sources to overcome these shortfalls." It seems the committee did just not stop at recommending the necessary; in fact, it sometimes gives the "necessary" short shrift. It’s certainly mystifying how construction of a MagLev train is an efficient use of scarce resources amid a funding crisis.  

Georgians must insist that enabling legislation takes a straighter path to solving the state’s transportation funding needs. It’s a long road: The state Department of Transportation estimates a

$7.7 billion funding shortfall over just the current six-year period, and maintenance, safety and other improvements alone were short nearly $445 million in 2007. Then comes the dilemma of funding the necessary additions to accommodate population growth, from road capacity to public transit.

The committee’s recommendation to establish a state infrastructure bank is backed by Governor Sonny Perdue’s plan to include $50 million in the state budget to fund one. SIBs are intended to complement the traditional federal-aid highway and transit programs with loans and credit enhancements. But while they can help local governments, they could also divert spending and attention from larger, more necessary projects.

The report exhibits a well-placed concern for freight transportation needs, and legislators need to keep in mind as they look at public transit that the U.S. DOT projects an 88 percent increase in demand for rail freight transportation by 2035. Commuter rail use on Georgia’s railroads will shrink capacity on the tracks and divert freight onto the state’s congested highways.  

 

Funding challenges at the federal level exacerbate the state’s. In January, the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission recommended to Congress an increase in the federal fuel tax by 25 cents to 40 cents per gallon over the next five years, then indexing it to inflation. It’s shortsighted.

An already-regressive tax would grow 136-218 percent. It also recommends expanded funding for inter-city rail and more mass transit use.  

 

As for public transit in general, Ron Utt of the Heritage Foundation points out, "The simple fact is that decades of huge subsidies (20 percent of federal surface transportation spending at present) and public-sector hectoring have not persuaded Americans to get out of their cars. Transit’s share of passenger transportation is less than 2 percent of the market, and 70 percent of America’s transit riders live in just seven metropolitan areas." 

 

This is a funding crisis. Elected officials should not suggest transportation funding options can be "revenue-neutral." Taxpayers can’t realistically be expected to approve a tax increase without first being reassured that projects are necessary and prioritized; that the existing or projected use of funds is justifiable; and that legislators are doing all in their power to implement innovative funding alternatives and hold governments and agencies accountable. Putting the cart before the horse is no way to move Georgia transportation policy forward. 

 

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.

 

 

 

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