We must invest in all transportation modes to compete in today’s economy

By Maria Saporta

At the September 2011 meeting of the Georgia Research Alliance, Gov. Nathan Deal told the prestigious group of business leaders and university presidents that he had just returned from the Southern Governors’ Association annual meeting where the focus was on innovation.

At SGA, Deal questioned why Silicon Valley and Boston were attracting research, development, venture capital the innovation jobs. He was told it was all about quality of life.

“They like to be able to ride bicycles to work,” Deal told GRA board members. “So when I ask DOT (the Georgia Department of Transportation) to build bicycle trails, don’t think I’ve lost my mind.”

Well governor, we’re still waiting.

In fact, these past two years, national and local studies have only reinforced the trend that more and more people are giving up their cars for alternative modes of transportation — walking, cycling and transit.

A new study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institution, people are driving about as much as they were in the mid-1990s, according to Michael Sivak, who conducted the study.

“This is the first time we’ve ever seen a drop like this,” Sivak was quoted in a piece on CNBC.com on Saturday.

Driving in the United States reached a peak in 2004, and it has been declining ever since. In 2011 (the most recent year for which data are available), the average licensed driver drove 12,492 miles behind the wheel. That’s down 1,221 miles, or 8.9 percent, from the peak seven years earlier.

Annual Vehicle Mileage Rate chart (Source: University of Michigan and CNBC

Annual Vehicle Mileage Rate chart (Source: University of Michigan and CNBC

So one would think that if Georgia wanted to position itself to be competitive as an innovation state, it would find ways to invest in alternative modes of transportation.

But quite the opposite is true.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce held a “Hot Topics” program with two panels on July 25 on Georgia’s Transportation Future.

The timing was bittersweet coming almost one year after the defeat of the regional transportation sales tax on July 31, 2012 in nine of the state’s 12 regions, including metro Atlanta.

Most of the panelists spent their time patting themselves on the back for what a great job Georgia was doing in transportation.

“We’ve got a good story to tell in Georgia,” said Toby Carr, director of planning for the Georgia Department of Transportation. We’ve got good arterials. We have a great intermodal network. We’ve got a lot going on.”

Almost everything that the panelists were able to point to were “managed lanes,” public-private partnerships for those “Lexus lanes,” improvements at various interstates, doing more with the road capacity we have. In other words, the vision and the plans were centered around roads, highways, cars and trucks.

“We are almost a year out from the referendum,” said Jannine Miller, executive director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority. “We have the second or third best transportation network in the country. It is the artery system that moves our country. We know we have a phenomenal region. Every region has transportation issues. We have the best formula in place to address these issues.”

Really?

Part of the problem is that for the past decade, the Atlanta region has been focused on the wrong issue — congestion, when the real focus should have been on livability.

The kind of investments one makes to create a more livable place is totally different than the kind of investments one makes to reduce congestion.

And the kind of communities that attract people who are drawn to the new economy are livable places — places where they can walk, cycle, hop on a streetcar, light rail, a city bus, or work from the coffee shop down the street from their apartment or condo. That requires investments in alternative modes of transportation.

More and more of these people are choosing to not own a car, and they are choosing to live in cities where they can live without a car. So let’s ask, how many places in metro Atlanta or Georgia could you live conveniently without a car?

Carr was asked about the future of commuter rail, after all there have been statewide commuter and intercity rail plans for more than a decade.

“It’s very challenging to get those type of assets up and running,” Carr said. “There are high up-front costs. And then there are the motor fuel tax restrictions…. We are making the best use of our existing assets. (Commuter rail) is challenging in the current environment.”

To put it more directly, Georgia has no dedicated source of funds to pay for alternative modes of transportation — the kind of investments we need to serve the innovation economies of today and tomorrow. Virtually the only dedicated state transportation dollars that we have come from the motor fuel tax, which according to the state Constitution, is limited to roads and bridges. So we are forced to continue investing in an unbalanced transportation system that better suits an old world economy.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If the state is serious about wanting to be competitive in the 21st Century, it should tackle this issue head on.

It can seek to get the state Constitution changed to allow the motor fuel tax to be invested in all modes of transportation.

It can dedicate the state sales tax on all gas purchases to an alternative transportation fund.

It can switch from a gas tax based on gallons to one based on price, like a sales tax. That way, the gas tax would increase as the price of gas goes up, providing an even greater incentive fore people to use alternative modes of transportation.

It can start charging people based on vehicle miles traveled, even though that would not encourage people to buy more fuel efficient vehicles.

The state needs to come up with annual dedicated appropriation for all the transit systems in the state, including MARTA.

For those who don’t believe gas taxes or state taxes should fund alternative modes of transportation, they should consider that the fewer people who use our roads and highways, the less maintenance and repair costs there will be on those roads (not to mention better mobility for those who choose to drive).

But as Gov. Deal realized two years ago, the real issue is not congestion. The real issue is livability — creating vibrant places where the best young minds (and those of all ages) want to live, work and play.

We’re waiting governor.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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