Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Gov. Perdue's Transportation Shuffle
by Lyle Harris
Georgia Online News Service

Gov. Sonny Perdue's long-awaited plan for re-tooling Georgia's fossilized transportation agencies is the best idea he's had all year. But that's only if the year in question is 1985, not 2009.

While there's some merit to what Perdue is trying to accomplish, his approach ultimately suffers from the same dollar-short-and-a-day-late mindset that has stymied efforts to improve the state's transportation network for decades.

The plan, just announced this week, would eliminate two bureaucracies in one fell swoop: The State Road and Tollway Authority, which is responsible for overseeing the operations along busy Ga. 400 in metro Atlanta, would simply go away. There's no reason to shed any tears over SRTA's possible demise since it barely ever had enough work to do to justify its existence. The other agency that would also get shuffled off to the graveyard is the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, created by the man Perdue vanquished, Roy Barnes. By way of comparison, GRTA wound up running the extremely popular commuter bus service in metro Atlanta, an on-the-ground operational role it was never intended to play.

Although the hulking Georgia Department of Transportation would survive under Perdue's plan, its power and influence would be greatly diminished. In effect, GDOT would be replaced by a whole new agency, the State Transportation Authority. The STA would be led by a "transportation secretary" (who'll be referred to as a "czar" soon enough) and a board chairman, both handpicked by the governor. Members of the STA board would be selected by the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the state House of Representatives in a deal that Perdue hammered out with the two men who now occupy those positions, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Speaker Glenn Richardson. The changes being proposed are spelled out in a voluminous bill the General Assembly is expected to vote on during this session.

Perdue is dead right in seeking to reform or, at least, rein in DOT, an agency, which has become an ineffectual anachronism. There was so much wrong with the way DOT is governed for it to be left unscathed. Among the agency's systemic flaws is the method for choosing its policy-setting board by a secret ballot of lawmakers in each of Georgia's 13 Congressional districts. Such a process has proven indefensible and, as anyone might have predicted, degenerated into a mechanism for patronage, cronyism and waste.

The STA that Perdue envisions would be headed by appointees who are directly accountable to two of the state's top elected officials. That arrangement makes sense and could prove to be more successful in cutting through the red tape and getting projects built on time and on budget, areas in which DOT has been failing miserably. There's also some reason to hope that the STA will take a broader, and more aggressive stance on alternative modes of transportation such as mass transit, commuter and high-speed rail. Despite its name, DOT has never done much more than build and maintain roads and bridges.

It's unclear at this point whether Perdue's transportation do-over will have any impact on the antiquated, ethically challenged process for selecting DOT board members. While such reforms are desperately needed, our problems won't be solved by shuffling boxes around on the state's organizational chart or dreaming up spiffy new titles. The real key is addressing the severe lack of transportation funding that will determine Georgia's ability to confront its transportation challenges now and in the future. That's really all that counts.

But during a press conference to announce the governor's plans, there was little mention of raising Georgia's gas tax, which, at 7.5 cents per gallon, is still one of the lowest in the nation and has failed to keep pace with rising inflation. A separate, 4 percent sales tax on motor fuels, most of which can only be used on road and bridge projects, must be revamped. Also at issue is the funding straitjacket known as congressional balancing" a state law that mandates federal transportation money that flows through the DOT be shared equally among Georgia's congressional districts. The balancing law was originally passed to ensure the transportation needs of rural parts of the state's didn't go begging but has had exactly the opposite effect. DOT has built beautiful, but mostly empty stretches of highway where there's little travel or commerce at the expense of metropolitan regions where construction costs are much higher and urgent transportation needs are largely unmet.

There's no doubt that this latest, top-level effort to reorganize the state's addled transportation infrastructure comes at a crucial juncture. GDOT has been in disarray for years and is about $450 million in the red. As a result, hundreds of important transportation projects all over Georgia are hanging fire because there's no money in the pipeline to get them completed. Georgia is also trying to get its act together at the same time the Obama administration is set to begin doling out billions in federal stimulus money for transportation projects. A review of the federal stimulus package by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that Georgia could receive about $1 billion for highways and bridges and $168 million for transit capital projects, a potential boon for MARTA and other operators.

After years of dithering on transportation issues, Perdue's belated epiphany on the subject could also have an impact on two pending bills in the Legislature that were crafted to address chronic funding shortfalls. One measure would allow residents in metro Atlanta and other regions to vote on whether to tax themselves for transportation improvements, such as expanding transit. The other bill would seek to raise gasoline taxes by one percent statewide to generate revenues for a long list of unfunded transportation projects. Perdue's conservative inclinations, not to mention the ongoing economic downturn, have seemingly put him at odds with any measure that even remotely resembles a tax increase.

The recession notwithstanding, this is no time for timidity or slavish devotion to political ideology that doesn't serve our long-term interests. What Georgia needs is bold leadership to identify innovative new ways of funding costly transportation improvements. We'll never move forward if we continue looking in our rear-view mirror.

Lyle Harris is a former member of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial board.   [full bio]


Editor's note: At the top of our Georgia news today is the first discussion of the proposed nuclear power plants that Georgia Power would like built. One of our Capitol reporters Maggie Lee spoke to several representatives from around the state, sat in on today's committee hearing, and files her report. In yesterday's Green Sheet, she reported on Gov. Perdue's proposal to revamp the state's transportation agencies, and today Lyle Harris writes about why he thinks it's all a bad idea that's years too late.

Two recurring but disparate discussions are also on today's Green Sheet: school vouchers and the way history views the tragic deaths of Leo Frank and Mary Phagan.

As always, we'd like to hear from you. GONSO is an enterprise founded and staffed by more than two dozen leading journalists and media executives in Georgia. We're providing content free -- for a limited period. Newspapers, broadcasters, bloggers and websites are welcome to use our articles -- please credit the writers and the Georgia Online News Service.

Send your comments and any story ideas to executive editor John Sugg at john.sugg@georgiaonlinenews.org. You can also call us at 800-891-3459.


Today's GONSO

More nuclear power in Georgia? It's 'pro America,' sponsor says

by Maggie Lee
Georgia state representatives took their first look Wednesday at a controversial bill that would raise Georgia Power bills and will soon decide if the state has more nuclear power in its future.
Full Story

Gov. Perdue's Transportation Shuffle

by Lyle Harris
Creating a new transportation agency is an idea that's years too late. Only by addressing the severe lack of transportation funding will allow Georgia to confront its severe transportation challenges.

Full Story

View to a Georgia Kill: A New Book Looks at Leo Frank on Film

by David Lee Simmons
It was a long time ago. But it hasn't gone away. An Emory University film scholar has written a new book that examines just where fact, fiction and debate converge in the true-life story of the deaths Leo Frank and Mary Phagan.

Full Story

SOAPBOX

Vouchers recognize the fact that one type of school doesn't fit all students' needs

by Lisa Baron
Are school vouchers the state's way of playing favorites? In her first column for GONSO, Lisa Baron says government has an odd way of imitating family life.

Full Story

Tomorrow's Budget
Georgia Power Ties Nuclear Option to SB 31; Others Consider Alternatives
by Maggie Lee
Georgia's Legislative Black Caucus at a Critical Political Crossroads
by Maynard Eaton
A Hope Program for Transportation
by Michael Dobbins

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