From transit expansion to road improvements, six candidates to become Georgia's next governor pledged Wednesday to ease the pain of commuters and speed the shipping of freight across the Peach State if elected.
Addressing the Georgia Transportation Alliance in Atlanta, the candidates said Georgia should build on the billions of dollars it has invested in roads and bridges in recent years to ensure it remains competitive for new businesses and jobs.
Maintaining a competitive edge in economic development is a common theme among the four Republican and two Democratic candidates who attended the forum.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Republican, said Georgia needs more “bold steps” like the General Assembly’s 2015 decision to raise nearly $1 billion a year for road and bridge construction. After that legislation passed, Gov. Nathan Deal unveiled 11 major highway projects – including express lanes on the top half of the Perimeter and reconstruction I-285’s interchanges at I-20 – to be launched in the coming decade.
Among the projects Cagle said he'd consider are a highway tunnel under Atlanta to ease traffic on the Downtown Connector and elevated highways designed to minimize the need to buy expensive right of way.
Cagle and former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, a Democrat, touted their roles in passing the 2015 legislation. Abrams noted it also included $75 million for transit. She said the state must invest more in transit in the future, which in Georgia is almost exclusively paid for by local governments and federal money.
“Those are critical needs, and they cannot be relegated to local communities,” she said.
A House of Representatives commission spent several months studying state transit funding as well as the possible consolidation of transit agencies in metro Atlanta. Specific legislation could be unveiled as soon as next week.
Democrat Stacey Evans agreed state funding is needed to improve mass transit in Georgia. She endorsed “a coordinated regional mass transit system” in metro Atlanta. But she also endorsed more transit options for Georgians living in rural areas.
“I know the world doesn’t end at I-285,” Evans said. “If you don’t have access to transportation, you’re not going to get to a technical college or to a job or to the doctor.”
Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, was skeptical of a transit expansion. “I want to know what it’s going to cost and who’s going to pay for it,” he said.
Kemp wants to cap and re-prioritize state spending, giving taxpayers the best bang for their buck. One example: He said widening U.S. 27 near LaGrange to accommodate freight offers one of the highest returns on investment for state taxpayers.
Republicans Hunter Hill and Clay Tippins also emphasized the need to use taxpayer money wisely. Hunter said he wants a “more limited and focused government,” with transportation getting a higher share of the proceeds. Tippins said the state should scour its budget for savings that it can invest in critical projects.
Tippins also was skeptical of state funding for transit.
“I don’t think I can ask someone in (south Georgia) who has limited trust in how those dollars will be spent to invest in that,” he said.