Five years ago, it wasn’t easy to engage folks at Georgia’s Capitol in a serious conversation about transportation. The sting of loss from 2012’s transportation referendums in most regions of the state – especially congested Atlanta – was still relatively fresh. Money in the state budget was still tight. Teachers were still being furloughed in the aftermath of the great recession.
There were many other issues that political leaders could fix. Easier, cheaper issues.
After months of planning, PolicyBEST was launched on Jan. 28, 2014 with a press conference to get the public focused on the real problems of Georgia’s transportation system again. We brought together leaders of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the Tea Party and the Sierra Club to note agreement there was a problem, and several areas where there was also consensus on a path to solutions.
During the press conference, it began to snow, with the storm achieving the nickname “Snowmageddon.” Atlantans attempted to exit the city en masse. Gridlock ensued. Within 24 hours, Atlanta’s traffic was international news. As for getting people to focus on a problem, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
The chairmen of the Transportation Committees, Jay Roberts in the House and Steve Gooch in the Senate, took up the issue in a high-level study committee over the next year. Roberts was from Ocilla in deep south Georgia. Gooch is from Dahlonega in the north Georgia mountains. They managed to turn the need into action, culminating in a bill that reformulated Georgia’s gas tax structure for the first time since the Nixon administration, moved money from existing sources to the GDOT’s budget, and added user fees to vehicles not paying gas taxes to maintain Georgia’s roads.
Between the 2014 study committee and the 2015 session, Gooch was elected Senate majority whip, ceding the transportation chairmanship to Tommie Williams, who has been succeeded by Sen. Brandon Beach of Alpharetta, a study committee member. Senators from opposite ends of Ga. 400 split the load, helping translate the needs of urban and rural Georgia to each other.
The work of the study committee turned an issue that most preferred to avoid into a bill that received a bipartisan supermajority of votes in both the House and Senate. Almost 1 billion additional dollars were added to transportation spending annually.
It was a good victory, but it didn’t end the discussion. 2015’s Transportation Funding Act provided money to resume deferred maintenance on Georgia’s aging bridges and for resurfacing roads, with some left over for major interchange improvements throughout the state and upgrades to Georgia’s freight corridors.
There was not enough money to fully address congestion in metro Atlanta, but the bill did lay down a marker with an eye toward the future. It made available direct money from the state to be used for Georgia’s transit agencies in the form of grants. It was a signal that there remained work to be done, both in the legislature and with public acceptance of transit beyond Atlanta’s urban core.
Now, Beach is the Senate Transportation Committee chairman and Rep. Kevin Tanner chairs the House committee. Tanner is from Dawsonville, also at the northern rural extremity of Ga. 400. Sen. Gooch remains actively involved, having helped secure funding in 2017’s session for an effort to have consultants quantify the need and possible solutions for transit in Georgia.
This planning started the effort to present a transit solution when it wasn’t clear there would be a receptive audience. There remain easier, cheaper problems for legislators to fix.
This time the catalyst for renewed interest wasn’t a snowstorm, though we’ve had more than our seasonal share. Instead, Amazon’s surprise announcement that it would be searching for a corporate campus of up to 50,000 employees has brought visibility and resolve to the issue.
Amazon made clear what corporate relocations of NCR, State Farm and others have tipped off to state leaders: The recruitment and retention of high wage corporate employers will follow the tracks of transit. Those counties and municipalities without transit need not apply.
As such, Georgians now have a House speaker from Blue Ridge, a lieutenant governor from Hall County, a governor who resides in Habersham, and a House Transportation Committee chairman from Dawsonville looking to figure out the governance structure that will get suburbanites comfortable while acknowledging the decades of investment from Fulton and DeKalb residents. Sen. Beach remains a champion of expansion and economic development from Alpharetta, while Sen. Gooch of Dahlonega remains an interested party — one who will ultimately be counting Senate votes. If the governance puzzle can be unlocked, funding is expected to follow.
Amazon has helped focus the transit discussion, but the preparations were started before they were in the picture. As such, bills are expected soon to help expand transit — and the economic development opportunities that come with it — to a wider footprint.
It’s always better to be lucky than good. The state’s leaders who recognized the problem, many of whom hail from outside the metro Atlanta area, know it’s even better to make your own luck.