Time to talk transportation

February 4, 2014 

Tuesday was the big day. After months of planning, PolicyBEST was launched at a 10:30am press conference. The goal of the organization -- of which I am the eecutive director -- is to facilitate substantive policy discussion in areas where Georgia has specific needs but governance has gotten sidetracked.

The issue showcased at the launch was transportation infrastructure, with a coalition of members from Georgia's Tea Party Patriots, the Georgia Transportation Alliance, and the Sierra Club. Formerly opponents on the last major transportation plan, these groups along with PolicyBEST have found common ground on where to start, along with an agreement to have an honest and open dialogue on how to move forward.

None of us expected the dialogue to come easy. The fact of the matter is, after the trouble of transportation referendums in much of the state two years ago, few elected officials have been eager to engage the topic. That's understandable. It's easy to view the public votes as "the will of the people" and move on to other topics. This also is an election year. No need to bring up that recent unpleasantness until after campaigns are done. Then, perhaps, the waters could be tested again.

The waters managed to come before the press conference was over - in the form of snow; 24 hours later, Atlanta traffic was the talk of the state and much of the nation. A mass exodus of over one million people from the city of Atlanta and surrounding areas managed to put the region into gridlock within an hour.

The next 24 hours will be remembered in Atlanta for generations to come: 2014 will join 1993 and 1982 as "where were you then?" times for epic weather events. This one, at least for now, may have a bit more of an edge to it. The snow has melted, but some anger lingers. Having thousands stranded in freezing temperatures overnight -- many separated from their children, who were still in schools or even on buses -- will do that.

And suddenly, people want to talk about transportation again.

It would be cheap and easy to trumpet the events of Tuesday and Wednesday to underscore the need for the fixes that PolicyBEST has proposed. They are modest and relatively simple to implement. They would get funds immediately shifted to transportation infrastructure, as well as empower local jurisdictions to augment state efforts with maximum flexibility in planning and funding needed and desired projects. It would be a start.

But just I have advised in the past that voters should not make decisions when they are angry, policy decisions should not be made in the midst or immediate aftermath of a crisis. "Never let a crisis go to waste" is not a mantra for real, substantive, long term fixes. Atlanta's and Georgia's transportation infrastructure issues are complex, and involve many issues that extend beyond taxes and project lists.

Part of the problem of past initiatives is that solutions were oversimplified and benefits overstated to a public that understands the problems are real, complicated, and expensive to truly solve. As such, any attempt to gain trust and acceptance with the public cannot be seen as a quick fix, reactionary solution.

As such, we're happy to have the discussion, but remain modest in our goals. Our transportation proposals are not a quick fix. They are but the start of a much needed look at the long term needs of the state with respect to its investment in transportation and how it will be funded.

Ideas such as allowing local governments maximum flexibility in both amount of local taxes (including the possibility of levying taxes in fractional percentages), choosing what counties if any they wish to partner with on initiatives instead of assigning them into regions, ensuring that all user fees collected as a tax on motor fuels go to transportation, and streamlining transportation agencies and their functions won't keep what happened Tuesday from happening again. These items would, however, keep the problems inherent in our system from getting even worse.

What hopefully will be the lasting goal of the groups who stood together as the snow began to fall will be a commitment to look beyond these initial proposals and offer solutions for the long term. Solutions that will meet the needs of Georgians long after the ice has melted.

Thus, while our initial suggestions are modest on the surface, our long-term goals remain ambitious. As such, we're glad to have this discussion.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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