May 24, 2008

Twists and Turns on the Road to Transportation Solutions

By Benita M. Dodd

There are some things that Georgians clamoring for a way out of traffic congestion simply must accept. Such as the need to direct more money and innovative solutions to this state's transportation challenges. There are others that policy-makers endlessly repeat in an attempt to condition the public into acceptance. Such as "commuter rail" and "subsidy."

Since transportation funding legislation failed to gain a constitutional majority in the Georgia Legislature, the task of funding the state's needs is tougher. But it's not insurmountable, especially with a little leadership and a lot of restraint. Georgians rightfully are reluctant to give government carte blanche when it appears transportation officials have lost control of what they already had to work with. Or, as Ronald Reagan once said, "Government is like a baby: an alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other."

Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Gena Abraham proffers hope for the future of transportation policy on several fronts. Not surprisingly, the crowd at a recent Georgia Public Policy Foundation Policy Briefing Luncheon nodded in agreement when she said, "We are facing a transportation funding crisis ... We need more funds for transportation."

The DOT is in a heap of trouble, much of it made public since Abraham took over in January. At the Policy Briefing Luncheon, she revealed that 8,476 projects are on the books at the Department of Transportation but just 1,345 actually have someone actively assigned to them. The department workload last year was just 270 projects. The active cases total $29.5 billion; the annual budget of the state DOT is about $2.1 billion. And highway construction costs have risen 35 percent in the last 10 years.

So it was promising that the DOT commissioner talked about prioritizing projects and innovative financing options such as tolling and congestion pricing. Congestion pricing (such as time of day tolls) not only maintains free-flowing traffic, it benefits transit by reducing the subsidy to highway users, making transit more attractive and allowing transit operators to move fares closer to actual cost instead of huge subsidies.

And she stressed, correctly, "For us to believe we can continue to build ourselves with roads and bridges out of this transportation issue is just not a realistic expectation any longer. We can't just keep adding lanes to all our interstates."

Among the alternatives Abraham discussed, she said she was excited about the plan to convert high-occupancy vehicle lanes into a network of high-occupancy toll lanes, which would allow solo drivers to pay a toll and drive in these managed lanes. Unfortunately, she appeared to see the proposed 26-mile Lovejoy-to-Atlanta commuter rail line as part of the solution, too, calling it "a huge step in the right direction."

She added, "If you'll look across the country, commuter rail is typically subsidized in some form or fashion" - sometimes as much as by 70 percent. Subsidies are never good, and when imposed, the lower the better. But passenger fare revenues typically cover about 25 percent of transit costs. Highway programs, on the other hand, derive most of their funding from user fees, special taxes and charges incurred by vehicle operators in relation to their use of roads.

The beauty of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority's successful express bus system is that it is flexible, not fixed, and can change with demographics. Tying up transportation dollars and communities' dollars in commuter rail is inefficient in metro Atlanta, a sprawling, low-density region with few dominant destinations. Bus rapid transit and express buses are far more cost-effective and efficient in a situation where every dollar counts, and in which the commissioner already is warning communities that existing projects will fall by the wayside.

Finally, to many it could be seen as "a rose by any other name," but the commissioner's suggestion of a name change for the State Transportation Board's Public-Private Partnership Committee to the "Alternative Financing Committee" is a concern. The significance of the Public-Private Partnership Committee is that it is considering how to maintain just that: a partnership that involves the public sector - a government agency, representing the interests of the taxpaying public - teaming up with a private company that is best for the project. It's a mouthful, but it helps keep all parties mindful of that relationship at all times.



Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.