Transportation Roundtable Identifies Trust and Funding Challenges

Several members of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, including Chairman Bill Shuster and 7th District Representative Rob Woodall along with Georgia congressmen Tom Graves and Rick Allen met with representatives of the Georgia Department of Transportation, the Georgia Ports Authority, Coca Cola, and United Parcel Service Tuesday morning. The event was billed as a roundtable to discuss the region and nation’s transportation network, and possible federal legislation that would improve the nation’s transportation infrastructure.

Roundtable members included (front row) Georgia Ports Authority Senior Director Jamie McCurry, UPS VP of Network Operations Matthew Broaders, Georgia DOT Senior Engineer Meg Pirkle, and Coca-Cola VP Matthew Connelly.   (Back row) 14th district rep. Tom Graves, Transportation Committee Chair Bill Shuster, 7th District Rep. Rob Woodall, and 12th District Rep. Rick Allen.
Roundtable members included (front row) Georgia Ports Authority Senior Director Jamie McCurry, UPS VP of Network Operations Matthew Broaders, Georgia DOT Senior Engineer Meg Pirkle, and Coca-Cola VP Matthew Connelly.
(Back row) 14th district rep. Tom Graves, Transportation Committee Chair Bill Shuster, 7th District Rep. Rob Woodall, and 12th District Rep. Rick Allen.

Two major themes emerged from the roundtable. The first is the need for a consistent, long-term source of transportation funding. Over the past few years , the federal government has used a continuing resolution process to keep the highway trust fund afloat. That makes it extremely difficult to make plans when, as the DOT’s Meg Pirkle pointed out, there is a 30 year plan to improve the movement of freight in the Peach State with no available funding.

The other major issue is the one of trust. Congressman Woodall pointed out that voters in Forsyth County, one of the most conservative in Georgia, were willing to pass a $200 million bond issue to pay for local transportation improvements, including the widening of Georgia 400. However, the county failed to pass the regional TSPLOST three years ago, and many county residents opposed House Bill 170, which funded road and bridge maintenance throughout Georgia. Trust that the federal government will spend transportation money wisely is even lower.

Combine an unwillingness to trust succeeding higher levels of government to make transportation decisions with the increased costs added at each level, and there is clearly some room for improvement. Addressing the congressmen, one speaker in the audience noted that the planning process (and expense) is higher if a project is inside a metropolitan planning organization like the Atlanta Regional Commission. Congressman Woodall noted that the environmental requirements of the NEPA approval process can add years to the time it takes to get a project to completion.

In the end, there were lots of questions and issues presented, but there were no firm conclusions reached. Charlie Harper and I live tweeted the event. I put most of our tweets along with some others into a Storify story, which is below the fold.

12 comments

  1. ATLguy says:

    In times past, you could explicitly say what you mean without suffering any real social sanction. But as times changed, you had to use euphemisms to disguise your true feelings because airing those feelings will cause you difficulty.

    So, the reason why people opposed T-SPLOST isn’t “trust”, nor is their opposition to increasing funding for the GDOT due to the need for vague “reforms” or some tendencies toward fiscal conservatism or better ethics. Evidence of this wasn’t just the tax increase in Forsyth County, but the fact that Cobb County taxpayers are going to wind up spending nearly half a billion dollars – when all is said and done – to accommodate the desire of a private corporation to sell more Braves tickets AND maximize profits from total ownership of lucrative restaurants/bars/parking near the stadium.

    Instead, the real reason is being opposed to “their” tax money being spent to build projects, create solutions, draw economic growth, help areas etc. in places that have elected leaders that they disapprove of. To be more specific, the folks in Forsyth, Cobb, Gwinnett etc. take extreme exception to the point of offense to the people that Atlanta, Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton have chosen to elect to govern themselves. As a result of this, they are not going to support any plan that involves their tax dollars going to those areas. They are not going to support any effort that would require their elected leaders working with – and sharing power with – the leaders of those areas. And they have this stance even if it means forgoing transportation, infrastructure, economic development etc. projects in their own areas.

    Now they are willing to support a high level of taxing and spending so long as all of the proceeds – and all of the power – are kept local, run by leaders that they approve of for the benefit of constituencies that they approve of. Or if intra-government coalitions must exist, they would support it if it is limited to areas similar to their own elect leaders similar to their own. Basically, if there were some proposal for Forsyth, Gwinnett, Cobb, Hall, Cherokee etc. to share financial resources and government leadership to build their own projects, that would be rather popular. It is only if and when different constituencies and their leaders are included that it becomes a deal-breaker.

    Again, of course you cannot come out and say this openly. Too problematic. Far better to claim “a lack of trust.” And this is why it is something of a misnomer to call the people in Forsyth “conservative.” They may well be Republican. At least they are now, anyway … not that long ago they were all uniformly yellow dog Democrats (which came to improperly refer to moderate or conservative Democrat, but actually means someone who would vote for a yellow dog than a Republican) who fully supported the New Deal, increased government, higher taxes, pork-barrel spending, increased regulations etc. from the end of the Civil War until Reagan, and as recently as the last decade was still voting for Zell Miller and Roy Barnes (who lost not because folks in those areas thought that the northern arc was a big government big spending project, but because they didn’t want it to go through their backyards!)

    Their alleged “conservatism” is best described in this Slate article: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2015/05/mike_huckabee_s_welfare_state_conservatism_the_former_arkansas_governor.html whose byline is: “The former Arkansas governor understands something important about GOP voters: They aren’t opposed to welfare spending as long as it’s for them.” They are willing to spend their money on themselves and people like them and to contribute to the success of their leaders and those that they oppose of, but they want to starve constituencies and leaders that they have some, er, disdain for, of not only their tax money, but state and federal (and private if possible) dollars also. There are a lot of things that you can call attitudes like that, but conservative isn’t one of them. It isn’t Barry Goldwater conservatism or Ronald Reagan conservatism but it is a lot closer to the politics of big spenders Orval Faubus, Strom Thurmond, George Wallace and Lester Maddox.

    Now we can keep the blinders on, tip-toe around it and not solve anything, or we can acknowledge that these faux conservative attitudes exist and provide the appropriate response in terms of politics and policy. A solution would be to allow these suburban folks to fund their own local projects at their level – to create their own version of MARTA for highways and intra county BRT projects for example – and to give them what they want on one hand, and to stand up to them on the other hand by properly funding the urban projects at the state level via grants or the GDOT.

    Right now, what is going on is that suburban projects are being funded by both the local level via SPLOSTs for inter-county projects AND the GDOT for some interstate projects. The result is the worst possible fiscal AND transportation policy, especially considering that even the ability of urban areas to raise their own revenue to fund their own projects is hampered by state oversight … when the state government is elected and dominated by the same yellow dog Democrats that were electing Lester Maddox not long ago.

    That is the real problem, and so long as no one is willing to admit it, nothing is ever going to get done no matter how many committees, referendums, coordinating agencies etc. that are erected to try to talk past the issue.

    • Charlie says:

      You really need to learn to say more with less.

      At most what you said above was 2 paragraph’s worth. It’s also straight out of 2011’s comments here.

      • ATLguy says:

        Granted. But perhaps the better, professional writers SUCH AS YOURSELF should take a whack at it yourselves?

        It was straight out of 2011’s comments here? It just means that if it was true then it is still true now, and that the recent governor’s elections hasn’t changed squat. It also means that much-hyped efforts such as your own group PolicyBEST and the transportation subcommittee are just shams.

        The main issue is that group A doesn’t want to share power or resources with group B because group A resents the fact that group B has political and economic clout to begin with. Group A is resigned to the fact that they can’t stop Group B, but are going to do their level best to keep from going along with the current state of affairs, and are holding out hope that if they starve Group B of enough resources, then JUST MAYBE Atlanta will be “the next Detroit” after all, which would vindicate their yellow dog attitudes without REALLY ADMITTING that they are yellow dog attitudes to begin with.

        I admit that doing this isn’t easy because it means taking on your own side. But when you consider that the competition – Texas, Florida, North Carolina and even South Carolina and Tennessee – has already gotten past this sort of nonsense and gone to work making themselves far more economically competitive and as a result Georgia has gone from being the economic leader of the deep south WITHOUT relying on revenue from tourism and fossil fuels to being reduced to bribing companies – either declining ones like NCR and GE or those bringing jobs that will pay less than the industry average – to relocate here then it is a battle that has to be taken on.

        You mentioned comments in the past? It looks like back then you were declaring the tax money being spent on the new Falcons stadium was some sort of outrage on policy and moral levels, and that the money should instead be spent on the Beltline. It was a major theme of yours it seems during the T-SPLOST debate. But Cobb County spending twice as much money on the Braves stadium as Atlanta is going to on the Falcons stadium instead of using it on transportation projects to move people to and from Hall and Gwinnett? And when the Braves stadium will make the already horrific traffic issue in the Cumberland area even worse AND force the state to redirect GDOT money that would have been better spent elsewhere to increasing I-285/I-75 traffic to accommodate the heavily Republican-leaning Braves fan base? Not a peep from you on that one. Maybe it is because you have a streak of yellow dog in you yourself. And since you are actually considered one of the “moderate” voices on your team, this means that we will still be talking about these same issues in 2019 and beyond … unless Democrats take control of the state that is.

        • Charlie says:

          Stopping after your FIRST PARAGRAPH because I’m not going to try to read treatises from people who are shouting at me.

          I’ve kind of spend the last two years writing on this topic. We’ve discussed the (lack of) trust factor, which I’ll be hitting again here today. We’ve talked about those things you say we can’t mention here, very specifically, including the reputation that transit is only for poor people and that old white suburbanites don’t want transit because they say it will bring crime, which most know is really a cover for some form of racism. And I’ve even made charts and graphs comparing our ridiculous spending levels to that of our neighbors.

          ^See, you CAN say those things here. In fact, we have. And I just hit the highlights in one paragraph.

  2. MattMD says:

    Somebody correct me but what is the big deal with Forsyth County passing the bond on 400? The whole issue with T-SPLOST was that it put people in our balkanized region into an Us v. Them mentality. One side thought too much money was going to the other. Does Woodall really think that major highway improvements should be done on a county by county (local) basis? Roads don’t stop at the county line.

    Also, what parts of 400 are being widened? What happens when it goes into North Fulton/Alpharetta?

    • Jon Richards says:

      Matt, you are oversimplifying Woodall’s position. There are several issues here: I already mentioned the lack of trust. I separate that from what ATLguy says above — it exists at the local level as well, but is more pronounced as you move from local to region to state to federal. The second is the increasing number of regulations and permitting that must be followed depending on who is funding the project. One of the themes discussed yesterday was the amount of time spent complying with federal regulations that delays project delivery and adds to expense. the 400 widening can be completed for less money and less time because local dollars are being used.

      Georgia 400 narrows from three lanes to two at McFarland Parkway, which is just north of the Forsyth County line at McGinnis Ferry Road. Part of the bond funds would widen 400 from McFarland to Matt Highway / Browns Bridge Road, which is about 10 miles. Here are all the projects the bond will be used for.

      • John Konop says:

        Jon,

        The goal in transportation is moving people and goods at the most efficient level. Our countries growth from the start has been based on this concept, and is a key reason why our economy became the envy of the world. We know if you do not invest smartly in infrastructure your economy will downgrade.

        If you understand the above, no rational person would do transportation county by county….This must be coordinated outside of your county to get the best bang for your buck…Imagine if I 75, was built county by county….I have seen many politicians scream local control, unconstitutional, blah, blah…..It is laughable, if it did not hurt the average Joe so much….The plan needs to be coordinated from metro, state, national and international needs….The irony is we became the southeast hub via a mayor in Atlanta who had the vision…In case some of you do not know this check out the name of the airport here….Now we have local officeholders who do not even understand local history as well as our country….

  3. Dave Bearse says:

    The roundtable was lame if it was comparable to Shuster’s column on today’s AJC opinion page.

    Who knew that sustained investment in transportation infrastructure requires consistent, long-term sources of funding?

    And gosh, who could have predicted demand for transportation will be increasing with increasing population and economic activity?

    Anyone else notice that the words “gas tax” weren’t anywhere in the conversation?

    The GOP’s solution appears to be repeal/reduce regulation. It’s a solution likely to be as effective as seal the borders has been to immigration reform for nearly a decade..

    • ATLguy says:

      1. We never actually sealed the border.

      2. Supporters of “immigration reform” actually support what amounts to open borders but aren’t willing to come out and say it.

      • Dave Bearse says:

        1. Of course we didn’t, because we can’t, at least not without supplemental measures (such as employment restrictions/checks, so let’s do nothing else until the border is sealed.

        2. I don’t support open borders, but do support immigration reform. Generally I support citizenship for only illegals that arrived in the US prior to age 18 and attended at least a year of high school and no significant trouble with the law, or very long time residents of established character. I support legalization of illegals that have been here a significant time, but not short-termers.

        Those do support open borders and don’t say it aren’t any greater in number than those that don’t because it’s brown people—not sayin’ you’re among that crowd..

  4. Rambler14 says:

    So if the same project takes 2-3 times as long complying with Fed regs than State regs,
    wouldn’t it make sense that the fastest and most efficient path forward is going the Local route and bypassing GEPA (Georgia’s NEPA. Yes, there is such a thing) entirely?

    I hope the term “environmental streamlining” wasn’t used. Federal government has been talking about that for 20 years and every time they pass a new bill, the process gets worse.

    • ATLguy says:

      “So if the same project takes 2-3 times as long complying with Fed regs than State regs,
      wouldn’t it make sense that the fastest and most efficient path forward is going the Local route and bypassing GEPA (Georgia’s NEPA. Yes, there is such a thing) entirely?”

      The problem is that the projects that we really need can’t be done on the local level.
      You want a metro highway to improve traffic flow on the north side? It cannot be funded, planned or managed by Gwinnett, Cobb, Forsyth, Hall, Cherokee etc. alone.
      You want a light rail or BRT system up there? More of the same.

      You seem to think that this is something that hasn’t been tried before and needs to be given a shot. That ignores the decades of failure that are MARTA, ARC, GRTA etc. And keep in mind: those are multi-county agencies, not single county efforts! The issue isn’t local governments being able to do the same projects quicker, but rather the “local route” meaning that the projects that we really need never getting built at all. After all, it isn’t as if local counties are falling over themselves begging for the ability to build these projects themselves. You have pundits, activists and certain state legislators promoting it. But are Cobb, Gwinnett etc. begging to be allowed to build their own major highway, for example? Of course not. They would much rather the state fund it, manage it and ESPECIALLY maintain it after it is built.

      Do you know how much GDOT spends in annual maintenance of the downtown connector alone? It is massive. Do you really think that the counties want to take on the cost and responsibility of managing major thoroughfares like that themselves? To be the ones who have to clean up after accidents, or the ones that everyone screams at during snowstorms? Exactly.

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