Moderated by Tom Sabulis
Planning a road trip for Thanksgiving this week? You might want to pay attention to the condition of the highways and bridges. Many are in a sad state of repair, their maintenance wanting for lack of funds. It’s gotten so bad, the state can’t afford to pay for even basic infrastructure fixes. Today, three important players write about our dwindling stream of transportation revenue and how other, competing regions around the country have begun to leave us in the dust.
Fix transporation, or risk fading away
Two thousand years ago, the city of Ephesus was a leading commercial center on the coast of Asia Minor. It sat on a key trade route from Rome to the East. However, its vibrant port required constant dredging to maintain its operations, and over time, the city’s leaders lost their will to regularly maintain the harbor. As a result, this once great city withered and died.
Atlanta and Georgia today face their own infrastructure challenges. Georgia ranks 49th in the nation in per capita transportation spending. In the Southeast, we spend only just over half what North Carolina and Virginia spend on transportation, and 43 percent of what Florida spends, though we have more state road lane miles to maintain. Metro Atlanta also lags behind similarly sized metro areas in transportation investment. For instance, the Dallas region spends 280 percent more; greater Phoenix, 150 percent more, and the Denver area, 300 percent more than our Atlanta region on transportation.
The result? Forty-eight percent of our state-maintained roads and bridges are considered in poor or fair condition. Metro Atlanta has been ranked 91st out of 100 among major metro regions nationwide for access to transit. Atlantans have one of the worst commutes in the nation, with the average driver wasting on average over $900 in fuel per year sitting in traffic. Prospective businesses rank our transportation woes and our inability to address them among of their chief concerns about moving to metro Atlanta.
In response, the Georgia General Assembly created this year the Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Funding Infrastructure for Georgia. Over the past four months, we have met in Atlanta, Columbus, Tifton, Macon, Augusta, Savannah, Blue Ridge and Rome. We have listened to civic leaders, transportation experts, business executives and everyday citizens explain not only the transportation problems facing our state, but possible solutions. Our charge is to make recommendations to the General Assembly before it convenes in January.
As our committee considers our solution options, we are mindful of the following realities brought out in our hearings:
1. At a minimum, Georgia must immediately find additional transportation funding of $1 billion per year just to properly maintain our present transportation system; and in the long run, we must also find another $1 billion-plus per year to meet critically needed future improvements.
2. Greater flexibility and coordination between state and local regions are needed to allow our regions to assess and fast-forward particularly critical transportation projects.
3. Public-private partnerships and toll lanes and roads are viable options in some areas.
4. As motor vehicles become more fuel-efficient and electric cars, more common, the present primary dependency on motor fuel taxes to fund transportation must be re-evaluated.
5. The present policy of allowing the state and local governments to divert sales taxes collected on motor fuel for non-transportation purposes must be reassessed.
6. Greater coordination among metro Atlanta transit providers is required to make transit a viable transportation alternative in our urban and suburban area.
7. The following need to be adopted to determine which transportation projects should top the list for implementation: congestion mitigation, economic development, accessibility, safety and environmental quality.
Throughout history, all great societies must continuously meet their infrastructure challenges or watch their earlier successes slip into the history books.
Atlanta and Georgia are not immune to this reality. We are rightly proud of our past success, but we desperately need to step up and respond to our transportation infrastructure shortcomings to maintain our status as a destination point for economic growth and for people seeking a higher quality of life.
Former state Rep. Edward Lindsey is a citizen member of the Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Funding Infrastructure for Georgia.
Georgia needs bold vision
Ever since officials with the Western & Atlantic Railroad drove the zero mile post into the ground in 1837 near what is now Underground Atlanta, transportation has been the life-blood of metro Atlanta. As the 10-county region has grown to more than four million people, transportation infrastructure in the form of three major interstates, the ninth largest transit system in the country and the world’s busiest airport has cemented the region’s status as the dominant economy in the Southeast.
Transportation is so important to the region that residents in a recent survey called it “the biggest problem facing residents of metro Atlanta.” That survey was the Atlanta Regional Commission’s (ARC) second annual Metro Atlanta Speaks public opinion poll, in which we asked metro Atlantans for their perceptions of how the region fares on important issues like education, transportation, quality of life, health and the economy. When given a list of such topics, respondents in seven of the 10 counties surveyed named transportation as the top concern.
Furthermore, residents have some definite ideas about how to address transportation challenges. According to the statistically valid survey, public transit has strong support throughout the region. A strong plurality (42%) of metro Atlanta residents say that expanding transit is the “best way to fix traffic problems, ” and Clayton County confirmed their support for transit by voting earlier this month to become part of the MARTA system.
Perhaps more telling were the answers to another transportation question: “How important is public transit to the future of metro Atlanta.” Overall, 70 percent responded that it is “very important,” with another 22 percent saying it is “somewhat important.” That’s a total of 92 percent of metro Atlantans who believe that public transit is important to the region’s future.
At least 74 percent of respondents in every county said public transit is either very important or somewhat important. That number was higher than 90 percent in six of the 10 counties.
Unfortunately, public transit is expensive and federal funding is dwindling, and local governments don’t have the means to close that gap.
There are bright spots on the horizon, however. Before the end of the year, the Atlanta Streetcar will open, providing cross-town connection between the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic District and Centennial Olympic Park. MARTA is beginning a study of rail service from the Lindbergh station to Emory University and on to Avondale.
Several game-changing road projects are also underway. The Georgia Department of Transportation is working to improve the interchange of Georgia 400 and I-285, while adding express toll lanes to I-75 both north and south of Atlanta. Meanwhile, people in north Fulton are seriously discussing another expansion of MARTA rail up Georgia 400. Folks in Cobb and Gwinnett counties are trying to find ways to bring fixed-route transit to their major corridors, too.
However, funding for critical infrastructure remains a challenge at both the national and state levels. Americans are driving fewer miles than in the past and cars are more fuel efficient than ever before. These factors mean that federal and state motor fuel taxes do not generate as much revenue as they did even 10 years ago.
Other metro regions competing with us for jobs, workers and federal transportation dollarsare finding ways to fund their infrastructure. Denver is spending 300 percent more on capital projects than Atlanta; Dallas is spending 280 percent more. They are doing so through state and local taxes approved by their regions’ voters. As a result, they are gaining a competitive edge when it comes to attracting the jobs and workers that every metropolitan area needs.
Here in Georgia, the General Assembly’s Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding and will wrap up its work later this month. It will develop a legislative recommendation for consideration in 2015. We hope it will be a bold and fruitful recommendation. Metro Atlanta is home to more than half of Georgia’s population and more than 60 percent of its economy. There is no doubt that keeping the region moving and providing options in the capital city is good for the entire state.
Doug Hooker is executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Users should pay, states prioritize
By Johnny Isakson
Election Day served as a warning to Congress and our federal government: Kicking the can down the road accomplishes nothing other than to fuel frustration.
Americans — and Georgians in particular — are eager for Congress to address looming challenges that have largely been cast aside by a Democrat-controlled Senate in recent years..
With a new Senate majority and the resounding message sent by voters, Congress must begin working to solve some of our greatest long-term problems in a realistic, forward-thinking way.
One problem we face will be funding the federal Highway Trust Fund, set to expire May 31. It’s running out of money.
The Highway Trust Fund was created to ensure a dependable source of financing for the interstate highway system and funding for many other state and local transportation programs.
During the last three years, Congress has addressed the pending shortfall of the fund by borrowing and increasing the national debt rather than addressing the larger issue of finding adequate, long-term funding. As a result, our nation is paying a punitive price because of the underlying problem: The federal gas tax that primarily funds this critical trust fund is obsolete.
Factors such as higher fuel economy standards, the encouraging rise of electric and hybrid vehicles, greater population density and more compact cars have driven gasoline consumption down. With drivers buying less gasoline, the revenue coming into the Highway Trust Fund has dropped. Given these factors and recent trends, it is likely our gas consumption will continue to decline. Simply raising the tax rate on a declining revenue source isn’t the solution for our long-term infrastructure needs.
In 2015, we have a real opportunity to repair this broken trust fund and find a new formula that fits the needs of 21st century America. It is time we change the trust fund model to a “user-pays” system. Everyone who uses the roads and other modes of transportation financed through the trust fund should pay into the system.
I also support letting states set their own infrastructure funding priorities. While the federal government should prioritize projects important to the nation as a whole, states have a much better sense of their day-to-day infrastructure needs, and they should be given the flexibility to direct the use of gas tax revenues collected within their borders.
In October, the final hurdle was cleared to allow construction to begin on the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project. It is estimated the harbor deepening project will bring $174 million in annual net benefits to the U.S. For larger Post-Panamax II vessels, the extra five feet of depth in Savannah Harbor will allow for an additional 3,600 cargo containers in each transit, an increase of 78 percent.
This is excellent news for Georgia and our nation. However, for Georgia’s ports in Savannah and Brunswick and our economy to respond at maximum capacity, our infrastructure — the highways and bridges that will support this additional traffic — must be sufficient and safe.
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., is a member of the Senate Finance Committee.