Sunday Issue: Transportation Funding ‘Plan B’

Another journey toward open roads

The Editorial Board’s Opinion

The good news is that when you’re already at the bottom of a hole, the logic of where to go from there is pretty apparent. Or at least it should be.
That’s the situation facing Georgia’s malnourished transportation infrastructure. Recent events suggest this message is becoming increasingly clear to lawmakers who hold state purse strings in an era when federal transportation funding is shakier than ever.
And that leaves us cautiously hopeful that the oft-discussed, never-fleshed-out “Plan B” for paying for long-deferred transportation improvements won’t elude Georgians, unicorn-like, for too much longer. It’s indeed encouraging to hear lawmakers again speaking the word “transportation” during public conversation. Good for them.
They should continue to do so at every opportunity because we all know that Georgia needs a 21st-century way to pay for upgraded transportation systems that’ve long been needed to address the challenges that come with living in a region and state that are actually growing. Georgia’s knack for continuing to attract new residents and create products that regularly need to move from Point A to B remains a good problem to have, even given the many frustrations driven by traffic congestion around the Atlanta metro.
So we’re happy to see that the Georgia General Assembly is again pulling away from the curb by starting a new conversation around transportation. It’s high time, in our opinion, given that two years have passed since the crash-and-burn of legislators’ last hand-it-back-to-the-locals-and-let-’em-sort-it-out solution called T-SPLOST.
After the pounding down of that referendum in nine of 12 regions statewide, we’re disappointed but not surprised that it took two years for the conversation to resume.
Using traffic levels on our roads most any day as a rough indicator, it’s safe to say that our mobility problems have not lessened much, if any, since the 2012 vote on the penny transportation sales tax.
So, Plan B is sorely needed for Georgia’s present and future. The legislative Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding began its public work toward this task earlier this month.
We urge committee members to listen well and study all the data they can absorb. A big part of reaching sound conclusions, in our view, will come from examining transportation systems and listening to thought leaders from both Georgia and anyplace else that we consider a competitor for jobs, people or economic development.
The 16-person committee of state lawmakers and other leaders faces a Nov. 30 deadline to present recommendations for the General Assembly. That’s not far off, yet we believe the task is doable if given appropriate diligence and hustle by the committee.
And, to allow for the likely complexity of any proposed funding solutions that emerge, the group should aim to beat that deadline by some weeks at least. That’s advisable because the more time between the issuance of their report and the start of the 2015 legislative session, the better off Georgians will be, we believe.
Given the time-honored tradition of delaying consideration of serious business until the session’s harried last days, we’d urge the committee to not give the full House and Senate any reason to defer a hard call for yet another year because needed legislation crashes and burns at the last minute next year.
The time for those sorts of political games is over. Or at least it should be in a growing state that continually ranks 49th in per capita transportation investment.
Finding money to upgrade our mobility will be a hard political conversation in this angry age. Even when GDOT numbers show a typical Georgian driving 16,000 miles a year only pays about $9 a month in state motor fuel taxes used for transportation. Yes, we wrote “only” because that is about the combined cost of a gallon of gas and a single drive-through fast-food meal.
Given that miserly figure, it’s no wonder that, at the current rate, it will take 50 years to resurface every mile of state road. More people need to hear, and absorb, numbers like these. They should replace the half-truths and myths that have filled in the vacuum around honest talk of what’s really needed to get us moving and what it will cost.
Georgia’s lawmakers must summon the courage to hear and act on all that in coming months. It’s up to the rest of us to support them if they produce a prudent, workable plan as a result.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

 

Conservatives only oppose wasteful transportation ideas

By Barry Loudermilk
Conservatives in general, and even so-called tea party conservatives, are not against transportation spending. Indeed, interstate commerce is one purpose of interstate highways and byways, and is one of the things the federal government is actually supposed to spend our tax dollars on.
What conservatives are opposed to is needless and excessive spending, pork-barrel spending, deficit spending, spending to pick winners and losers among American individuals and corporations, and spending to promote the social and economic whims of the Washington few.
As a member of the transportation committees in both the state House and Senate, I was charged with helping meet our transportation needs inside  Georgia, and to fold in these efforts  as seamlessly as possible with the interstate system paid for by our federal tax dollars.
Georgia is, in large part, a transportation-based economy; we have a premier port in Savannah, the world’s busiest airport in Atlanta, a huge agribusiness sector that needs access to foreign and domestic markets, and a vital rail infrastructure.
We also have many Fortune 500 companies headquartered here, whose leaders count on the ability to travel swiftly and frequently across the country and the world to remain competitive.
Transportation — when done logically — is more than a crucial economic development tool; it is a necessary public service that crosses all demographic, economic and political sectors.
It benefits both large and small businesses, employers and employees.
A robust interstate system can simultaneously accommodate trucks hauling President Obama’s pet Solyndra solar panels, those carrying petroleum companies’ products as well as a family on their vacation. True economic harmony and fair access to all.
I read with interest former congressman Ray LaHood’s comments about the lack of a Georgian on the Congressional Transportation Committee. What he fails to understand is the degree to which Washington-based incompetence, favoritism, waste and fiscal irresponsibility have damaged the trust the American people have in the ability of the federal government to do anything right.
The IRS has become the strong-arm of an out-of-control government, the NSA spies on us, an alphabet soup of national agencies dumps nonsensical regulations on us, the Veterans Administration fails our heroes, and yet, Washington asks for our battered trust and hard-earned money to devise the best transportation system for the nation.
Americans have lost confidence in their national government, and it must be the labor of the next generation of lawmakers in Congress to restore it.
Fortunately, restoring that confidence can be accomplished by replacing those responsible for wrecking it and bringing in those with new fresh ideas to resolve our growing list of problems.
I am an optimist. I believe America is capable of great things, and that our best days lie ahead of us.
I also believe that an increase in competence and respect for the proper role of the federal government in our lives will allow that government to do the things — like interstate transportation — it is supposed to do, and do them well. There will be no more fervent supporter of that than I.

Barry Loudermilk is the Republican nominee to replace U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey  in Congress next year.

 

Excerpts from the state resolution, authorizing the Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding:
Whereas, Georgia is home to the world’s busiest airport, fastest growing seaport, ninth-largest transit system, third-largest freight rail network in the United States, and 6.5 million drivers who travel 108.5 billion miles each year; and …
Whereas, transportation is essential to commerce and the provision of goods and services to the people across this state, to getting Georgia’s citizens to the workplace and medical and educational facilities, to the tourism industry, to the freight and logistics industry, and to every facet of the lives of Georgia’s citizens; and
Whereas, the federal government has demonstrated an increasing inability to deliver a consistent, predictable transportation funding environment; and
Whereas, Georgia’s growth rate is twice the national average; and
Whereas, Georgia’s transportation investment per capita is less than most of her regional neighbors; and
Whereas, traffic congestion in Georgia is projected to increase by 25 percent in the next seven years; and
Whereas, Georgia’s transportation leadership has predicted that current funding levels can, at best, cover 50 percent of our greatest needs; and
Whereas, new sources and methods of funding transportation projects are needed to allow the transportation systems in Georgia to keep up with the needs of the population; and
Whereas, the General Assembly needs to study these issues to determine funding mechanisms for road transportation projects in Georgia. …
Be it further resolved that the committee shall undertake a study of the conditions, needs, issues, and problems mentioned above or related thereto and make specific legislative recommendations for consideration in the next legislative session.
From a Q&A during the Joint Study Committee’s Aug. 5 kickoff meeting:
State Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, questioning political risk of possible tax hikes with speaker Michael Sullivan, chairman of the Georgia Transportation Alliance: “You can’t take the politics out of politics. Are you willing to go out front? When the naysayers are out there, where will you be?”
Sullivan: “We will be right out there on the front lines, taking the bullets for you.”


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