Innovation and focus help find solutions

Pointing fingers, moving the target and playing the blame game: That’s about all the action on transportation seen at the state Capitol this past session, despite the rancorous discussion following the regional transportation sales tax vote that failed in nine of 12 regions across the state.

The lack of movement was as unsurprising as congestion in metro Atlanta on a weekday afternoon. Legislators seemed anxious to leave, dragging their feet on acting on taxes, transportation and tort reform. That was understandable, too. They faced the unpopular options of prioritizing a tight state budget or raising taxes.

Fortunately, beyond the Gold Dome, transportation policy has been chugging along in the direction the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s “Plan B” sought: a HOT lane network. Reversible high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes are planned along I-75 in Henry and Clayton counties south of Atlanta and in the I-75/575 Northwest Corridor, while an expansion of the I-85 demonstration HOT lane project is planned in Gwinnett County.

These are promising steps toward a seamless, metro-wide network of HOT lanes that will allow motorists and transit to transition from one highway to the next without merging into general-purpose “free” lanes. Variably priced tolls help fund transportation, but even more important, maintain a congestion-free lane and encourage motorists to evaluate their trip timing and route. HOT lanes also provide a more attractive ride for bus riders.

Public transportation plays an important role in providing mobility in metro Atlanta. Buses provide more flexibility than rail – or streetcar boondoggles – at lower cost, and can reach more transit-dependent Georgians. Growing ridership highlights the popularity of express bus service, which takes cars off the road.

The Legislature’s partial funding of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority for express bus service was a temporary resuscitation, but local governments and transit providers must find ways to achieve greater self-sufficiency. Transit providers must be urged to embrace managed competition, outsourcing, partnerships and efficiencies to minimize the taxpayer burden and rider subsidies.

Technology also has a massive role to play in reducing congestion. Georgia’s investment in intelligent transportation systems gives motorists warning of approaching problems. Synchronizing traffic lights improves traffic flow. Now, providers must employ smartphone “apps” to help navigate public transportation. The next step is driverless cars. Georgia should boldly follow Florida, Nevada and California and legalize them.

Tolling, embracing technology and diverting superfluous traffic around metro areas are all necessary. We also need to restore private investors’ confidence in Georgia; public-private partnerships have been tripped up too often. Waiting for the federal government to send money is a wasted effort.

As the economy recovers, traffic will worsen. The state can get ahead by focusing on transportation policy solutions that work — and on needs rather than the wants and politics that doomed the regional transportation sales tax project list.

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Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.