ATLANTA -- The first report from the state's new transportation planning director warns Georgia's cities such as Augusta, Athens and Savannah will get more congested and that moving freight from the ports will get harder unless new funding sources aren't found soon.
It calls for additional resources equivalent to a 1 percent sales tax statewide, in addition to "a robust approach to tolls" and networks of managed lanes and transit. Doing so could allow that state to capture up to $480 million in economic benefit and 425,000 new jobs over the next 20-30 years.
Under a transportation-governance makeover bill approved by the Legislature in 2009, the new director of transportation planning is required to deliver a draft of the Statewide Strategic Transportation Plan to the Legislature for comments and suggestions. Todd Long, the director appointed by Gov. Sonny Perdue, did so last week, analyzing the recent past, projecting the existing revenue stream and what could be achieved with additional resources.
Though knowledgeable observers found no surprises in the report, it did offer an overview, including the ramifications of failing to secure new funds. Among other things, the report forecasts a shrinkage of one-third in the number of people in metro Atlanta who can reach an employment center in 45 minutes, increased congestion in the state's second-tier cities and heightened difficulty in moving freight from the Savannah ports.
From the 1960s through most of the 1980s, Georgia consistently invested more of its total state economic output into transportation infrastructure than the rest of the United States. But that started changing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, just as population and economic output began surging. As the report puts it, "Georgia's investment posture began to resemble a company pursuing a ... harvest strategy (i.e., relying on past investment success rather than actively preparing for the future.)"
And, the report says, since capacity did not expand to keep up with growth from 1985 to 2005, traffic congestion began overwhelming the network. By the late 1990s, Atlanta's metro area was developing a reputation for congestion and air quality issues.
While Georgia was "harvesting," its competitor states were aggressively building infrastructure. By 2006, state and local governments in Georgia combined invested only $380 per person (excluding bonds) in transportation.
That was about half the national average and far less than Texas ($730 per person), Florida ($730 per person), Virginia ($630 per person) and North Carolina ($500). In fact, across the entire country, only Tennessee invests fewer dollars per capita ($354) than Georgia.
How are other states managing it? "They draw on more sources by employing expansive toll programs, toll credits and sales taxes and license and tag fees dedicated to transportation. By contrast, Georgia really only uses motor-fuel taxes," the report says.
Those motor-fuel taxes, over the next 20 years, will only cover half of critical existing infrastructure needs for roadways, according to Long's report. And because existing funds cannot "flex" to fund mass-transit operations, the state's public bus systems and Atlanta's MARTA rail line will experience a $3 billion operating shortfall statewide.
Finally, something as basic as "matching federal dollars" could prove challenging at current funding levels. Depending on how the federal funding rules evolve for match in the next transportation bill, there is a risk that motor-fuel revenues are insufficient to match federal dollars as early as 2012.
Most federal transportation programs require state -- and sometimes local -- governments to match the funds coming from Washington, often at a ratio of 80 percent federal and 20 percent state and local. Not having the funds for the "match" means Georgia would forfeit significant federal funding programs.