Wait a second: Does Georgia really need to spend an additional $3.9 billion to $5.4 billion annually to meet its “full universe of transportation needs”?
That’s what the contractor HNTB reported in its analysis for the state Legislature’s Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Needs. At the very least, HNTB concluded, an additional $1 billion to $1.5 billion a year is needed just to “preserve the current transportation system.” That’s about double what the state currently spends on transportation.
But the study committee may not have selected the most objective evaluator of Georgia’s transportation needs.
HNTB is described in the report as an “infrastructure consultant,” which the committee “commissioned to assess and report on the magnitude of critical long-term transportation needs.”
Actually, the company is a lot more than that. It’s better described as a global transportation engineering firm. HNTB designs a wide range of public infrastructure projects and also operates some big transportation programs on behalf of government agencies, most notably tollways.
Among HNTB most recent business with the Georgia Department of Transportation is a contract awarded in August to manage the Georgia Commute Options program. The company also “provided services to the Georgia Department of Transportation for the review, negotiation, development and management of solicited and unsolicited
The real money in transportation relates more directly to construction, however. Because most of its revenue comes from actual infrastructure projects, HNTB has a huge stake in increasing the amount of public dollars that go toward roads, bridges and even transit. Case in point: In 2012, the Illinois Tollway Authority granted HNTB a $70 million no-bid contract to “oversee management of the tollway’s $12.1 billion Move Illinois rebuilding and widening program.” That came on top of $78 million in earlier contracts.
According to the company’s website, “HNTB is a leading consultant to toll agencies across the country, serving as general engineering consultant to more than 20 tolling agencies, more than any other firm in the United States. It is a partner to 20 of the 36 transportation agencies nationwide that are operating – or developing – systems using priced managed lanes, which also are known as express lanes.”
Not surprisingly, “toll lanes/facilities” and “managed lane networks” are among the 11 “options” that the Study Committee recommended to lawmakers.
I’m not questioning the professionalism or integrity of HNTB or its employees. At the same time, it’s not exactly unheard of for potential contractors to come up with projections that inflate the need for their work.
Still, the committee’s staff-written report invests HNTB’s findings with a level of credibility that’s a bit over-the-top. The company didn’t just conclude that we need $1 billion to $1.5 billion more in annual revenue just to maintain the status quo; it “received testimony [from HNTB] validating this ‘funding gap.’ ” It didn’t just agree with an estimate; it “verified” the numbers. (Emphasis is mine.)
Don’t get me wrong. It’s certainly past time for Georgia to pay its fair share to improve transit. There’s no doubt that many of the state’s bridges need repairing. Heck, even after accounting for better transit, there may be a few highways and interchanges that need to add capacity.
But chicken-little-ism can backfire. Not only will inflated projections undermine faith in the supposed solutions, but they may make the problem seems so gigantic that the challenge will appear unsolvable. Georgians aren’t going to dedicate an additional $5 billion annually to transportation — or even $1.5 billion.
At the same time, a climate of desperation could breed bad decisions when it comes to stewardship of public money. The privatized version of toll roads so popular nowadays in “pro-business” states is tempting to politicians because such projects require little in the way of initial taxpayer outlays. They also present an enormous opportunity for private gain, but they have a potential downside for taxpayers and commuters. The recent bankruptcy of the company operating Indiana’s “innovative” toll highway offers up a cautionary tale of what could happen.
Let’s just hope that, after all this debate over Georgia’s transportation funding crisis, we’re not left with a few token real improvements — alongside a plethora of toll roads that will do little more than spread the sprawl and could leave taxpayers holding the bag if they fail.