Road to the future

ajc.com

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

It’s well-known that Washington’s firm embrace of partisan gridlock has prevented action on even basic necessities of government.

The latest downside of such wanton inaction is this summer’s Congressional hand-wringing over a $265 billion transportation bill. For those metro Atlantans who drive daily along, say, our jam-packed I-20 at barely more than walking speed, you should know that Washington’s similar pace in reaching even the most minimal of solutions does us no favors.

This claret-red state that often takes pride in thumbing its nose at Washington’s free-spending ways is nonetheless heavily dependent on federal transportation dollars. Money returning south from D.C. accounts for 52.3 percent of the Georgia Department of Transportation’s spending for highway and transit projects, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Which makes it a large deal here and elsewhere that the U.S. Transportation Department’s Highway Trust Fund will run dry as early as August if Congress does not act.

This impending disaster makes it a necessity that Washington shift into high gear immediately and reach agreement on a reauthorization of the transportation bill.

It’s a tough problem because the federal gas tax, standing at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993, is falling short in terms of fueling transportation work. No surprise there, given the effect of inflation over time and rising vehicle fuel efficiency. In raw numbers, the tax now raises about $34 billion a year. Congress meanwhile seeks to maintain current funding of about $50 billion annually. Therein lies the troublesome gap.

Yet, rather than do the hard work of developing a realistic, long-term way to pay for transportation infrastructure, politicians are now offering time-honored mug-Peter-to-pay-Paul ideas to make the numbers work, such as cutting Postal Service funding.

In an election-year, such fun with numbers is a more likely outcome than courageously facing up to the politically implausible reality that the U.S. sorely needs a long-haul, sustainable transportation funding mechanism. Anything less, in our view, puts us at risk of falling behind in a global competition for capital and talent.

Achieving this important strategic fix will not be cheap. Yet, in our view, doing the hard work now will prove to be a bargain compared to the current, insidious cost of underinvesting to fix transportation inadequacies in Georgia and elsewhere. Anyone doubting that might be convinced by taking a leisurely drive north on Ga. 400 at rush hour.

And Washington’s not the only entity that needs to face head-on the reality that there is no free ride when it comes to maintaining, let alone improving, mobility for people and commerce.

Georgia’s state fuel tax is likewise in need of updating to reflect current realities. The General Assembly should make that a priority next year. A good place to start would be to shift the so-called “fourth penny” of the state gas tax to transportation purposes. This money currently lands in the general treasury.

And, as much as Georgia’s leaders try to distance themselves from D.C., they can behave in a similar manner on transportation issues.

Last week, Gov. Nathan Deal nixed an automatic 15 percent increase in the state’s gax tax that would have been triggered by existing state Department of Revenue formulas. Deal’s office cited rising fuel prices and a need for lessening taxpayers’ burden as reasons for his executive action.

Stopping a hike in fuel taxes likely will win points in an election year, but it does nothing to help pay for the sizable backlog of transportation work in metro Atlanta and the rest of the state.

Yet, Deal’s move is a logical one. From the Gold Dome to D.C., we’ve trained our elected officials to behave this way.

In our view, we’d all be better off accepting that there’s no free ride to improved mobility and then demanding that our elected officials behave accordingly in finding prudent, cost-effective ways to let us move around more efficiently now and in the future.