By Guest Columnist TERRY LAWLER, executive director of the Regional Business Coalition of Metropolitan Atlanta
While the recent defeat of the transportation referendum was not well received by Wall Street, the defeat was not the “second coming of Sherman” to metro Atlanta.
Yes, we still have a significant transportation funding challenge that must be addressed; and addressed quickly. But the metro Atlanta region should continue to attract investment during the coming years while we seek a long-term transportation funding solution. And we have a lot going for us in the metro Atlanta region.
The metro Atlanta region continues to grow. We are the 10th largest metropolitan area in the United States and are the 7th fastest growing metro area in the nation since the 2010 census.
The metro Atlanta region continues to have a well educated population. The region has over 50 institutions of higher learning, enrolling over a quarter of a million students and annually graduating the 6th largest number of college graduates in the nation.
The metro Atlanta region is also addressing our water resource challenges. The region just won a major legal battle that re-affirms metro Atlanta’s access to water from the Chattahoochee River basin and Lake Lanier. And when it comes to water conservation, metro Atlanta uses less water per capita than major cities in our neighboring states.
If you compare metro Atlanta’s population size to our air quality, we don’t even rank in the infamous top 20 cities nationally for either high ozone or particulate matter levels.
Our departments of transportation and local transit systems are almost unmatched nationally in providing transportation services to the public.
The Georgia Department of Transportation was recently recognized as number one nationally for delivering projects within initial budgets and second nationally in finishing them on time.
MARTA ranks first nationally in lowest operating expenses per passenger mile for trains and second lowest nationally in operating expenses per bus vehicle revenue miles driven. Cobb Community Transit (CCT) is more cost efficient than its peer transit providers in operating expenses per passenger trip and revenue per mile.
While we should be proud of our ongoing accomplishments, adequate transportation funding remains a challenge. The construction of any significant new highway infrastructure in the metro Atlanta region requires solving our funding challenges.
When combining federal and state sources of highway transportation funding, the State of Georgia will have approximately $1.1 billion annually for engineering, right of way purchases and construction. Yes, that is $1.1 billion statewide! Georgia law further requires these funds to be invested equally in each of Georgia’s 14 congressional districts, or roughly $78 million per district. The metro Atlanta region has needs that far surpass the $78 million available annually from federal and state sources for each congressional district.
For instance, it is estimated that improving the I-285/400 intersection could cost upwards of $450 million, an additional $150 million is needed to address the I-20/I-285 intersection heading to and from Douglas County, another $135 million is needed for Hwy. 316 improvements in Gwinnett, $75 million more to improve the Windy Hill/I-75 intersection in Cobb, and almost $50 million just to widen SR155 in Henry County. And those are just five of over 400 highway projects throughout the metro Atlanta region that transportation planners and engineers have determined need immediate attention.
And transit services, like GRTA’s Xpress Bus, CCT, GCT and MARTA provide mobility services to almost half a million metro Atlantans every day and have similar funding challenges that aren’t even included in these cost figures. In fact, it has been estimated that the metro Atlanta region will need more than $120 billion in transit and highway investments over the next 25 years; but we only anticipate having federal and state funding for less than half that amount.
Realizing all these funding challenges and needs, the metro Atlanta region cannot wait another decade to address our transportation funding challenges. We are fortunate to have a leader like Gov. Nathan Deal who has taken the reins to keep investing in metro Atlanta and Georgia with programs like the implementation of the managed lane system, which is moving forward on several corridors with the support of the governor, GDOT and the legislature.
The Chambers of Commerce throughout the metropolitan Atlanta region and the businesses they represent commend Gov. Deal on his leadership and pledge to “move forward” with him to address our continued and growing transportation funding challenges.