One sentence stood out in last month’s long-awaited report by the state Legislature’s Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Funding: “It is in the state of Georgia’s and numerous transit systems’ best interests to establish a separate, permanent funding stream for those
Despite the embarrassing typo (the last word was printed as “interests,” when “systems” apparently was intended), that’s about as close as GOP leaders have ever come to acknowledging that the state needs to fund transit.
If the committee’s admission was a step toward modernizing Georgia’s one-dimensional transportation system, Gov. Nathan Deal’s failure to mention any such thing in this week’s State of the State speech has to be viewed as a step back.
Creative Loafing’s Max Blau noted that Deal didn’t breath the word “rail” — or for that matter “bus” or “transit” — in his entire speech. And our recently re-elected chief executive certainly didn’t endorse “a separate, permanent funding stream.”
Instead, Deal suggested doubling down the roads-only approach that’s made Atlanta famous for sprawl and traffic jams. The one funding mechanism he sort of advocated— an increase in the state’s motor fuel tax — is constitutionally barred from funding anything other than roads and bridges.
Whether Georgia even needs all that much money for roads and bridges is an open question. Reporters and politicians are taking to the bank the Joint Committee’s claim that the state Department of Transportation need to double its budget just to upkeep our current infrastructure.
The problem is that that the report’s “verified” estimate of $1 billion to $1.5 billion a year just in increased road and bridge maintenance spending was provided to the Joint Committee by a contractor with a big self-interest in more transportation spending. And the committee’s rather thin report doesn’t offer any documentation for the claim. As so often happens in the political media, however, an unsubstantiated claim by an interested party quickly morphs into the neat number that journalists must latch onto. The result: breathless headlines and credulous editorials accepting an increase in the billion-dollars-plus range as absolutely dire.
Meanwhile, Deal himself noted that the state has found the money to add more than $1 billion worth of Interstate lanes in metro Atlanta during his final term. Go figure.
“We are constructing new capacity express lanes along large stretches of I-75 and 575. We are also extending the managed lanes on I-85,” he said. “Over the next four years, we will open to traffic more than 1.1 billion dollars worth of new, reliable Interstate lanes in Metro Atlanta, the largest interstate expansion since the 1980s.”
You get a real sense of where transit stands as a priority when you contrast the scale of those Interstate lanes with the recently opened 2.7-mile Atlanta Streetcar. Even its boosters admit the streetcar isn’t going get a lot of cars off the road — not like, say light rail from Atlanta to Cobb or along the northern crest of I-285 would. The streetcar was funded by the city and the feds; without state help its scope is likely to remain extremely limited.
Deal’s speech and the general lack of any actual proposal to fund transit bodes poorly for an authentic effort to solve the transportation mess that’s strangling metro Atlanta. The good news may be that Georgia politics aren’t particularly transparent. Most real decisions in the state legislature are cooked up behind the scenes.
Business leaders are at times apoplectic that so many Georgia politicians continue to frame the all-roads-vs.-well-rounded transportation debate along red-vs.-blue fault lines. We can only hope that they’ll be forceful enough in advocating for that “permanent funding stream” for transit to get some action before the end of this transportation-themed legislative session.