Some words of wisdom from Tom Crawford about DOT's new Commissioner and the state of transportation in Georgia.
In past posts I have written that throughout the present and earlier administrations, even though we have needed to improve and go forward with ambitious transportation improvement plans, an increase in our state’s motor fuel tax -- one of the lowest motor fuel taxes in the nation and much of any increase which would be borne by non-Georgians -- has been on the untouchable list. As Mr. Crawford notes, the issue of where needed funds for transportation is going to come from sure does need addressing.
Tom Crawford writes:
It is not exactly what you would call a strong mandate. The State Transportation Board voted by only a seven to six margin last week to select Gena Lester Abraham as the next commissioner of the Department of Transportation (DOT), which means she will be the first woman ever to hold that important position.
Whether she will end up loving the job or hating it is another matter. Georgia is hopelessly behind on dealing with its traffic congestion and legislators tend to blame DOT for not working quickly enough to get highways built. Some lawmakers, like Speaker Glenn Richardson, are also very displeased that the Transportation Board members picked Abraham instead of state Representative Vance Smith, who badly wanted the appointment.
Abraham has the academic credentials (a doctorate in civil engineering) and the experience (she has been in charge of state government construction projects for several years) that would be essential for a position like DOT commissioner. Governor Sonny Perdue backed her because he and her other supporters feel she can bring about a cultural change in the enormous bureaucracy that has run the DOT for so many years.
She does present a contrast to past commissioners, who were either career engineers moving up the DOT ladder or political cronies of the governor. Abraham has never worked as a DOT employee and she isn’t limited by any allegiance to departmental traditions. While it was Perdue who lobbied the Transportation Board members to appoint her, she actually got her first job in state government when she was hired during the Roy Barnes administration to oversee the renovation work on the state capitol.
Obviously, Abraham can bring a new way of looking at things as she takes control of the massive department that has nearly 6,000 engineers and employees on its payroll. It probably wouldn’t hurt to look at DOT’s established procedures and see if there aren’t any better and faster ways for a highway to be designed, paid for, and built.
Will a shakeup in the DOT culture be enough to deal with the traffic congestion crisis that threatens, along with the water shortages, to choke the life out of the state’s economy? There are some people who contend that the only problem with DOT is that it operates inefficiently in carrying out its mission of building our roads and bridges. By naming someone with a new approach to running the department, like Abraham, they say that DOT can save all sorts of money that can be used to pay for additional new highways without anyone having to raise taxes.
That might not be enough. Even if you assume, for the sake of argument, that Abraham is such a skilled leader she can squeeze an additional 10 percent out of the department’s budget through better management, you’re talking about $200 million in extra funding at most (DOT spends about $2 billion a year). If she could save that much money in administrative costs, that would be great for the taxpayers. It would make barely a dent, however, in the funding shortfall that Georgia faces in the area of transportation infrastructure. To build enough highways to cope with current and projected traffic congestion, Georgia would need about $7 billion to $8 billion more than it figures to bring in under the existing tax structure over the next decade, according to transportation experts. Even if the state should decide that mass transit is a better alternative than building new highways, it would still cost billions of dollars to buy buses and install commuter rail facilities.
Abraham’s an intelligent person who knows the construction trade, but she’s no miracle worker. She can’t make billions of dollars suddenly materialize out of nowhere. If they really want to deal with Georgia’s traffic mess, our political leadership is going to have to give up the idea that we can solve all our problems if we just cut taxes some more. Highways cost money. Transit systems cost money. Governments can only raise money by levying taxes. The governor and the legislature are going to have to make some hard decisions in that area.
Traffic congestion is out of control - the evidence is there for anyone with the eyes to see it - and eventually we’re going to have to pay for some kind of solution. There’s no such thing as free asphalt. The greatest DOT commissioner in the world couldn’t escape that basic economic fact.