This isn’t an opportunity; it’s a last chance

Watching Georgia legislators debate the state’s transportation future, as they did last week on the Senate floor, is enough to make a man despair.

You look at the scale of the challenge that we face as a result of decades of willful neglect and underinvestment, and then you weigh it against the cramped vision, distorted priorities and shortage of courage on display by those elected to lead us, and honestly — you really do have to question the state’s future economic viability. This isn’t an opportunity that we’re in danger of missing; this is looking more like a last-ditch chance that we just don’t have the gumption to seize.

Look, it’s great that Georgia boasts the lowest tax burden per capita in the country. But that also means we have the lowest transportation budget per capita in the nation. And where are the benefits that are said to flow from such a low-tax environment? You can’t drive to work on the lowest taxes in the country. It doesn’t do you much good when you wait for three green lights before getting through an intersection. And with the ninth-highest jobless rate in the country, rising poverty rates and declining household income, it doesn’t appear to have jump-started the economy.

The whole idea of low taxes is to put more money into the hands of Georgians, right? But there’s strong evidence that by strangling needed public investment, it’s actually doing the opposite. And unfortunately, the sense of despair only gets worse when you compare the lack of vision and courage on display under the Gold Dome to what’s going on elsewhere.

Consider the state of Texas. It’s one of the most conservative, anti-tax regions in the country, the heart of our fossil-fuel industry and a region fully committed to the romance of the open road ahead and a V-8 under the hood. If each state had a state automobile in the same way they have state birds or state animals, the state car of Texas would be a fuel-hogging Cadillac with a set of longhorns welded to the hood.

Yet a few years ago, Austin opened a commuter-rail line that now serves riders along a 32-mile route. Dallas has opened two new rail lines in the past six years and has expanded a third, with a total of 36 miles of rail service added in the last five years. Next month, it will also open a second downtown streetcar line.

Dallas already shares a 32-mile commuter rail link with neighboring Fort Worth, and Fort Worth is planning to open another 26-mile rail line to the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport by 2018. Down on the Gulf Coast, Houston opened a new rail line in 2013 and will celebrate the opening of two additional light-rail lines next month.

Somehow, they’re making investments in their future. Somehow, they understand that times are changing, and that things as they used to be yesterday won’t be nearly good enough tomorrow. They recognize that their metro regions are the drivers of their economy, and they’ve given those regions the resources, flexibility and authority to prepare themselves.

And in Georgia? Our legislative leaders act as if they should be knighted because maybe, just maybe, they’ll give MARTA the power to decide for itself how much to spend on operations vs. capital needs. That’s what passes for enlightenment.