Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Were we to pick the proper seasonal Chevy Chase movie to steal a line from for a headline, it would probably be Christmas Vacation. Given news out of the Georgia Department of Transportation yesterday, we instead have a line from another in the series, European Vacation. During one of the signature scenes in the movie, the family enters a traffic circle in London and is unable to exit. Chase spends the entire scene pointing out the same two landmarks, alternating with “I can’t seem to get over to the left…”
The Board of the Department of Transportation pulled a Request for Proposal soliciting contractors to build toll lanes along I-75 and I-575 northwest of Atlanta. The proposal was to be a public private partnership, using state funds, federal funds, and tolls paid to a private contractor over a 50 year contract to finance the expansion. GDOT officials insist the project has not been cancelled but rather has been placed on hold while other financing sources can be sought and reviewed.
The State’s current approach to transportation policy in metro Atlanta is a polar opposite to that currently being used to secure funds for and expand the channel to the Port of Savannah. There, officials across jurisdiction, geography, and political party are working together to speak with one voice. There is a clear goal, specific objectives and milestones, and a coordinated and well defined plan to achieve the final goal.
Atlanta’s transportation grid, responsible for moving more than half the state’s population on a given day plus any others who are passing through, has not seen an appreciable major construction project to add capacity in almost two decades, while adding roughly 2 million new residents. Transportation planning has Balkanized into various agencies such as GDOT, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, the State Roads and Tollway Authority, the Atlanta Regional Commission, Marta, Cobb County Transit, Gwinnett County Transit, as well as the various cities and counties within the region.
To make matters worse, GDOT itself has been without a Commissioner since September 7th following the resignation of Vance Smith. Smith had been under fire from his board for not filling many of his top posts, creating a backlog of work needing guidance and approvals. It’s hard to imagine leaving the top position open for three months and counting could help with this problem.
The cancellation of the process to solicit bids for the I-75 project is not the first sign of indecisiveness on the project. The project itself has had a history of starts and stops. Most recently, during its final approval, Governor Deal expressed concern over some of the contract’s proposed language which caused some changes to be made protecting the state’s and counties’ rights to improve roads which would feed the interstates.
In the interim, the State Roads and Tollway Authority opened its HOT Lanes along the I-85 corridor northeast of Atlanta. The initial reaction from Gwinnett County residents was decidedly negative, with the Governor calling on Washington to modify the rules which Georgia agreed to as part of the funding of the contract. The Feds kindly asked Georgia to allow for an implementation period so that motorists could adjust to the new traffic pattern before changing the design of a project that was years in the making. The toll lanes have since reached capacity according to state officials, but the bitterness of turning existing interstate lanes into paid toll lanes lingers.
It is impossible to view any of these issues without considering the regional T-SPLOST that will be considered by voters next year. Georgia leaders have staked the future of Georgia’s transportation infrastructure on the willingness of citizens to vote themselves tax increases in a basket of regional referendums currently scheduled for July. Managing public opinion of the state’s ability to execute large projects and actually solve transportation problems is key.
Yet GDOT remains leaderless, and the other assorted agencies that impact transportation planning are not presenting a cohesive message of competence or direction to a tax weary public. Further, the large Republican voting blocs that comprise Gwinnett and Cobb counties are growing increasingly frustrated with the approach to regional transportation and toll roads. Leaders, seeing a need but no revenue are passing the buck to voters for the tax increase. Voters, stuck in gridlock but feeling “taxed enough already”, are pushing back at the solutions of either toll roads or rail lines to downtown.
And so, we continue in this traffic circle, with a seeming inability to exit to a final plan. Republicans, who have now held control of the Governor’s mansion for 9 years and both chambers of the General Assembly for 7, have reason to grow concerned over how soon this is resolved, and how. For this is where the similarity with the Vacation movies may end. While Clark Griswold couldn’t seem to move left, Georgia voters may eventually decide that one party is responsible for continued inaction, and move that way at the polls.