Gov. Sonny Pedue’s proposal to restructure Georgia transportation bureaucracy is analagous to a surgeon performing a hip replacement when a patient needs a heart transplant.
The measure doesn’t address our long-standing, most pressing problem — congestion in the Atlanta region. In fact, it could make the situation worse.
Gov. Perdue, in an unusual alliance with fellow Republicans Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker Glenn Richardson, is proposing merging the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and the State Road and Tollway Authority into a new mega-agency: the State Transportation Authority.
The new authority, which would set policy and control funding, would demote the once-all-powerful Georgia Department of Transportation into a bit player.
It is one of the most overt politcal power grabs in recent Georgia history. Perdue, Cagle and Richardson would appoint all 11 members of the new authority.
That means it is possible that every authority member could mirror Georgia’s top three elected officials. They could all be white, Republicans who come from outside the Atlanta region. (Currently, GDOT’s 13 board members come from Georgia’s 13 congressional districts, which guarantees at least some geographic representation).
So problem No. 1, the new authority easily could ignore intiatives to improve metro Atlanta’s congestion problems.
But most importantly, the governance issue does not address our region’s dire transportation challenges.
The Atlanta region needs to drastically expand its public transit services (both rail and bus). It also needs to dramatically increase its investment in alternative modes of transportation and development — sidewalks, bicycle paths, multi-use town centers and flexible work options.
More specifically, the region needs new funding vehicles to invest in transit and alternative transportation modes. Currently, the Georgia constitution limits the motor fuel tax to roads and bridges.
As long as no new funding is dedicated to transit, metro Atlantans will not receive their fair share of transporation dollars. Studies show that the region get less than 60 cents of every gas tax dollar it raises for the state.
The two transportation funding proposals currently pending in the legislature — a regional sales tax for transportation in the Senate and a statewide sales tax in the House — would give voters a choice to tax themselves.
But now Perdue says he won’t support new funding proposals until he gets his new transportation authority. After spending years of not addressing metro Atlanta’s transportation problems, Perdue is adding yet one more hurdle while holding new funding hostage to his power play.
What’s even more confusing is that the governor is ignoring his own study — IT3. Just last year, the state invested $2.5 million for consultants to figure out how the state could address its transportation issues.
The study, conducted by McKinsey & Co., provided valuable insights on how to significantly change the equation. But it disclosed that there was a need for $100 billion in more transportation funding over 20 years. No where did the study point to governance as the issue.
The Transit Planning Board reached an amazing level of regional consensus last year when it approved its “Concept 3” plan calling for $54 billion in transit investment over the next 20 years.
In the past several years, there have been so many studies, and all have pointed to the same problem — insufficient funds for transportation in our state.
But to hear Perdue, the state has been investing billions of dollars and not getting a return on its dollars. There clearly have been inefficiencies, cumbersome bureaucracies and misdirected initiatives, and the state’s transportation governance should be improved. But it’s no excuse to continue shortchanging our transportation infrastucture in metro Atlanta and the rest of the state.
“For decades, Georgia has ranked at the bottom with respect to its peers in transportation infrastructure investment,” Sam Olens, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission and the Cobb Commission, wrote in a letter to Speaker Richardson Feb. 18.
“We currently rank 49th out of 50 in terms of investment dollars per capita,” Olens continued. “This lack of funding has positioned the metropolitan Atlanta area as the second worst city for traffic congestion in the nation. We simply cannot ignore this problem any longer.”
The question we must ask ourselves is whether the governor’s new State Transportation Authority will catapult us forward or whether it’s yet another distraction from us being able to tackle our core problems.
Will it finally provide an avenue for the state to support MARTA, the largest transit agency in the nation that doesn’t receive state funding?
Will it provide new funding opportunities to make Georgia a leader in transportation, the way it was decades ago?
Will it zero in on metro Atlanta’s traffic problems, our Achilles heel in attracting future economic development — vital to the whole state’s economy?
Will it bring us commuter rail, something Perdue had promised last summer and failed to deliver?
Will it push to change the state constitution to allow the gas tax to go towards all modes of transportation?
Will it take advantage of all the studies and commissions that provide a road map of how we can get out of the mess we’ve created — namely linking land-use with transportation investment?
Or will it merely add more politics to an already polarized state and delay real progress once again?
Sadly, all we’re getting are the wrong answers.