Charlie Harper: Georgia Needs A Clear Transportation Vision

Charlie Harper

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

With Georgia’s “Transportation Funding Act of 2015” now law, proposals by local governments as well as Georgia’s Department of Transportation have received increased attention and scrutiny. After all, with increased revenues flowing to GDOT’s coffers, voters and legislators alike wish to ensure that the increased investment will show results.

Two different proposals are making headlines that raise questions that need to be answered. They are not just the obvious ones about the appropriateness of spending. Rather, they reveal questions of a long-term vision for Metro-Atlanta and Georgia’s transportation priorities.

Cobb County submitted a request to the Georgia Department of Transportation to fund local transportation priorities that exceeded $100 Million. Eyebrows were raised when a breakout of the list revealed more than half of the projects were in the vicinity of the Braves new SunTrust Park.

As a resident of the area I can confirm that many of the intersections and interchanges in the area need improvement with or without the Braves. GDOT agreed on roughly $40 Million of the projects. The two that were most specific to stadium traffic – a bridge for busses and pedestrians to cross I-285 and upgrades to a parking deck at the Galleria Center to handle the bus traffic – were rejected. Thus, non-Cobb residents thus far don’t need to worry that they are bearing the burden of paying to relocate the Braves within the state.

Meanwhile, the city that will be handing off the Braves after next season continues to emphasize bike paths. In a region that has long been losing the battle of car congestion, bike paths are often viewed as a misplaced priority by the vast majority that rely on autos for our transportation needs. Atlanta has decided to push the envelope on this controversy. Not only are they requesting transportation funds for bike lanes, but they wish to take lanes from already congested roads to do so.

The project drawing the most ire is one to convert a 6-lane stretch of Peachtree Road from Midtown Atlanta to South Buckhead into 4 car lanes, two bike lanes and a turn lane. While some argue that the addition of the turn lane with allow for more efficient use of existing traffic that currently backs up for cars waiting to make left turns, terms like “road diet” demonstrate that others have an alternate goal.

Many city residents want fewer cars and fewer places for these fewer cars to park. They instead envision a city where walkability, bicycles, and streetcars move people within an urban core. While many suburban and rural Georgians will not relate, city folk see it as an advantage to take lanes away from automobiles and give the space to cyclists.

The Georgia Department of Transportation is working with Cobb, The City of Atlanta, and all other counties and municipalities across the state on their local requests. This is not only their mandate, but HB 170 also increased the proportion of gas taxes to be devoted to “LMIG” projects – Local Maintenance and Improvement grants. This increase not only helped build support from local governments for the funding initiative, but also helped answer critics who demand “local control” in transportation planning decisions.

The problem with this is that it makes it more difficult for a state to enact a consistent transportation vision that enables Georgians to move between 159 counties and over 500 municipalities. The counties surrounding Atlanta are prioritizing intersections and interstates that move residents to and from Atlanta. The city of Atlanta is attempting to minimize car traffic.

On the surface, we have competing goals of neighboring jurisdictions. This may please citizens that know their local priorities reflect their immediate desires, but continues to make it difficult to address needs at a regional and statewide level.

The City of Atlanta and its surrounding cities and counties must figure out how to accommodate the transportation needs of those that not only live within their jurisdictions, but those that will commute to and from the surrounding areas as well as those that will just pass through from farther away.

These principles extend to non-metro Atlanta, as building out additional transportation corridors that by-pass the region will be critical to moving people and goods to and from Georgia’s coast, mountains, and Southern farms.

We have a statewide transportation agency that must plan the needs for the needs of the entire state. This will require a clear and consistent vision from GDOT that incorporates all Georgians, as well as the millions that will move here over the next few decades.

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