In a bind for transportation dollars

Moderated By Tom Sabulis

A state House study committee recently filed its final report on whether Georgia should allow driverless cars on its roads. It recommended that the state take a wait-and-see approach; there are simply too many unknowns about the technology. A Fayette County commissioner today writes about what should come next. In our lead column, a conservative policy advocate weighs in on the tough choices needed to raise transportation revenue as the state looks to repair its aging inventory of roads and bridges.

Real solutions require hard choices

By Charlie Harper

Political leadership is about solving the challenges of today while preparing for the Georgia of tomorrow. Only in hindsight do we have the benefit of understanding if the decisions were big enough to address all the issues we faced and bold enough to embrace the needs of future Georgians, and if they demonstrated the resolve to face the critics who painted pictures of fear to maintain the status quo.

On transportation, the GOP record remains — charitably — incomplete. An incoming Gov. Sonny Perdue killed the Northern Arc highway and made mostly incremental changes until the end of his term. He left for his predecessor a plan for T-SPLOST, a statewide set of regional referendums born of political expediency and killed by voters in the Atlanta region in surprisingly bipartisan fashion.

The four-year delay in a comprehensive, statewide transportation solution is evident in the Georgia Department of Transportation’s current finances. There is a $700 million annual deficit in the amount needed to return to a normal maintenance schedule for roads and bridges alone.

There remains $16 billion in “essential” projects, mostly re-engineering existing roads for current capacity rather than creating new ones. Billions more are needed for the road and transit infrastructure to accommodate the 4 million new Georgians expected over the next quarter-century.

Few argue about the need. Many have been sincerely studying the best option to solve today’s problems while positioning Georgia for the state it will be decades from now.

Honest disagreement remains how to raise the needed revenue and, frankly, how much is needed. There is a general consensus that the roughly 11.2 cents per gallon collected statewide in gasoline taxes not currently directed to GDOT should be transitioned to the agency to best match sources and uses of tax. This would add about $750 million a year to road and bridge maintenance and/or construction.

Beyond that, most discussion has been between a statewide sales tax and increased gas taxes. At the state level, almost $2 billion per year is required to handle only maintenance and GDOT’s essential projects.

The discussion, however, has produced positions that appear to favor something while providing cover for doing nothing. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation, for example, recently recommended, “Optional tolls and an optional, more flexible local sales tax adds up to another $800 million a year in possible new funding targeted where the need is greatest and paid for by those who will benefit most.”

The term “optional tax” is unique, but without practical meaning. Once enacted, taxes are optional only if you choose to conduct an activity that is taxed. Sales taxes are “optional” only if you choose not to purchase something. The same can be said for gas taxes: No one is forced to pay the tax — only those who buy gasoline.

Sadly, this recommendation repeats the mistakes of 2010-2012. Members of the Legislature were “for” the T-SPLOST referendum when they voted for it, and against the measure when it appeared on the ballot. Many of these leaders – who promised to have a better plan if voters rejected T-SPLOST — remained quiet on solutions and quickly left the Legislature.

The concept of “optional tolls” raises the same issues. You have to pay these tolls only if you drive on tolled roads. But voters must understand how many roads, and which roads, would be tolled to raise significant new revenue.

The belief that tolls are “optional” implies someone else will pay them, while the rest of us remain in a functionally “free” road system. The hundreds of millions of dollars needed would require not only tolling new capacity, but existing roads that have “already been paid for.”

The new managed-lanes projects on Atlanta interstates have variable fares to manage congestion, not maximize revenue. If the goal is revenue maximization, those proposing this have a duty to tell Georgians which roads will be tolled, and how much the tolls and collection costs will be.

There are no easy answers. Meaningless platitudes are easy, but will not fund our infrastructure needs. Closing the gap between existing revenues and the funds needed is where the real work begins.

Charlie Harper is the editor of Peach Pundit and executive director of PolicyBEST, a non-profit organization that advocates for issues on Education, Science and Medicine, and Transportation.

Stay tuned for driverless technology

By Steve Brown

Innovative change is often hard to accept. Think back to the early Internet. As recently as 1995, the Internet was an archaic structure, used mainly by academics, scientists and the military. In 1994, Vanity Fair magazine declared the Internet a fad, comparing it to the CB radio.

Cloud computing is beginning to take hold in numerous government, business and educational environments. As cloud technology advances to the next iteration and gigabit fiber becomes the norm, we will see fewer people going to distant physical office towers as full function and communication will be available at home and places nearby.

Last year, the Georgia House Autonomous Vehicle Technology Study Committee did a superb job of engaging some of the brightest minds in engineering, law and industry to highlight a new technology that has the power to reinvent transportation. A future with autonomous vehicles holds the promise of more controlled traffic that significantly improve flow, reduce accidents and liberate the elderly, disabled and those restricted to transit dependency.

Vehicles will communicate with one another, enabling the selection of least congested routes while keeping protective watch 360 degrees around you. With the ability to not have to always drive to an office because of cloud computing, along with the automated advantage of autonomous vehicles, we can produce levels of efficiency that could have many transportation planners rethinking old strategies. We could be making multi-billion dollar miscalculations by investing more in expensive, outmoded models with low usage, such as commuter rail in suburban areas, especially when we cannot afford ongoing maintenance of existing roads, bridges and transit infrastructure.

We do not have the autonomous capability for navigating city roads for consumers at this time. However, Hyundai Genesis and Mercedes-Benz already have vehicles on the market with adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist and auto-emergency braking. Audi maintains it will offer “piloted driving,” systems that take control of driving in certain conditions, such as traffic moving at speeds up to 37 mph, in about five years.

One strategy the state government can exercise is attracting autonomous vehicle research and development to Georgia. This would entail the use of local roads in low-traffic areas for controlled testing by manufacturers. This testing would help our state officials develop proper regulations and could attract new jobs connected with the burgeoning new technology.

Liability — determining whether the driver or autonomous vehicle manufacturer would be at fault in an accident — was an important issue for the House study committee. Currently, there is no answer, because the technological environment has not evolved far enough to make a determination. Controlled testing does not pose a liability challenge, as both the driver and vehicle would be the responsibility of the manufacturer. Creating opportunity for such testing in Georgia is a good idea.

I wholeheartedly agree with the study committee that any regulations created by the state should be flexible and allow for evolution of the technology. Several states have already failed on that front.

Our transportation infrastructure will be compromised if we cannot keep it good repair. That requires precious funding. If state officials and transportation planners recognize the benefits of autonomous vehicles early, they could save us from making inappropriate transportation investments in future years.

Certainly, we must ensure we can pay for future maintenance and operation of our current transit infrastructure, a fuzzy picture now at best. Paying attention to a future with autonomous vehicles and the new disruptive uses they will create could prevent us from going the way of the Rust Belt states.

No one is investing in “land lines” when most everyone is advancing to smart phones. Likewise, let’s take a hard look at this new transportation technology before we fall for outmoded heavy rail in low-density suburban Atlanta.

Steve Brown is a Fayette County commissioner and member of the Transportation Leadership Coalition.


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