A Transportation Agenda for Georgia’s General Assembly, 2021-2022 Edition

It’s been a while since I’ve written here, in large part because the 2020 election, its aftermath, and other professional obligations have kept me busy. With the Georgia Assembly beginning its 2021-2022 session on January 11, I wanted to highlight a few key transportation priorities I’d like to see legislators pursue this year and next. I believe all four proposals are bipartisan initiatives, focused on road safety, revenue, freight movement, and general mobility benefits. Important note: I avoided transportation electrification, despite having plenty of state policy ideas in that area, as those align too closely with my professional interests. So things like funding for electric vehicle deployments (including infrastructure), matching funds for federal grants, tax credits, etc. that I do think we need to be pursuing as a state are not included in this agenda.

1) Legalize camera-based traffic law enforcement. Despite fewer miles driven due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was Georgia’s worst year for traffic fatalities in recent history. Though final numbers won’t be available for another couple of months, more than 1600 people died on our roads in 2020, up from 1502 in 2019, and still well above 2016’s recent peak of 1556. Pedestrian fatalities in the state have also skyrocketed over the past several years. And per the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), speed remains the top factor in deadly collisions, with roughly one-quarter of all fatal incidents involving at least one speeding driver.

As long as the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) continues to design our roadways primarily for throughput rather than safety, enforcement remains the only viable solution to reduce serious collisions. And aside from school zones, automated camera-based enforcement is illegal in Georgia, despite clear evidence speed cameras significantly reduce serious and fatal crashes in areas they’re deployed (anywhere from 11% to 44% reduction compared to pre-deployment). Municipalities cannot deploy these systems themselves because state law pre-empts them from doing so. The result is a complete dependence on law enforcement officers (LEO) to patrol our highways and local roads for reckless driving behaviors. This stretches already understaffed law enforcement agencies even thinner, at a time when violent crime is spiking in most major US cities. Atlanta has suffered one of the worst increases in the country, with 2020’s homicide count growing more than 50% over 2019’s total, and reaching a level not seen since the 1990s. Automated speed enforcement would not only make our roads safer, but also free up personnel to police violent crime. Police-manned “speed traps” can feel random (unlucky) and don’t produce longer-term behavioral shifts, whereas cameras ultimately are more effective at creating permanent shifts, even if only on corridors where deployed.

Moreover, growing attention to unequal treatment of Black men by LEOs, which boiled over following George Floyd’s death last year, has elevated the importance of reducing these interactions. Blacks are nearly twice as likely to be pulled over in traffic stops versus whites relative to their total miles driven, and also twice as likely to be searched in those stops despite lower rates of contraband discovery. Moreover, roughly half of law enforcement encounters for Blacks are police-initiated actions, the vast majority of which come via traffic stops. They are also less likely to receive citations (suggesting illegitimate stops), and are twice as likely (~5% total) to report experiencing the threat or use of physical force than whites.

Automated camera-based enforcement won’t eliminate all reckless driving and the need for human enforcement. Impaired and distracted driving, as well as speeding in areas not covered by camera deployments, will remain problematic. Nonetheless, expanding camera-based enforcement will reduce road collisions, serious injuries, and fatalities, free up law enforcement personnel to police violent crime, and limit unnecessarily hazardous interactions between patrol officers and Black motorists.

2) Commit to major investments in the state’s rail network. HR 37 (2019-2020) created a Georgia Commission of Freight and Logistics to assess the state’s current infrastructure and future needs to remain a national leader in those areas. (Its work was extended with HR 935 in 2020). The commission was led by Sen. Brandon Beach and Rep. Kevin Tanner, and comprised mostly their fellow Republican legislators, and the recommendations in its report are excellent. To meet growing freight demand, and to combat a persistent labor shortage in the trucking industry, the commission calls for significant investment in the state’s rail infrastructure, with an aim of doubling Georgia’s share of freight movement via rail from 17% to 35%.

To achieve this, the report outlines a handful of policy proposals covering everything from new revenue sources (more on that momentarily) to new statutory authority for agencies like the State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA) to allow them a role in creating private-public partnerships for multimodal freight infrastructure. I don’t have specific recommendations for project funding targets or financing mechanisms, but agree Georgia’s political leaders need to put rail expansion at the top of the state’s transportation agenda. Georgia remains one of the few states among its rapidly growing peers that does not have an ambitious passenger rail modernization program. Texas and Florida have high-speed rail projects in the works, and Virginia is moving forward with a major investment that will expand its freight and passenger rail service along a shared corridor between Richmond and Washington. Beyond growing state-owned rail capacity, Georgia leadership needs to take an active role in working with CSX and Norfolk Southern to both expand capacity and support sharing right-of-way for both commuter and intercity rail.

Furthermore, we already know Joe Biden will make intercity passenger rail a top priority for his administration, and the existing Atlanta-Charlotte Amtrak corridor is clearly going to be a priority for either upgraded service or an altogether new high-speed rail line. To best position itself for federal funding and project approval, Georgia needs to put real political weight behind the plan and begin to secure state financing for the project.

3) Explore new transportation infrastructure revenue sources. The state commission’s report also highlighted an urgent need for new revenues to pay for its infrastructure recommendations, on the order of $1 billion to $1.5 billion annually. It cited “fuel taxes, mileage-based user fees, other user fees, consumer based pay models such as a price per package on home deliveries from e-commerce providers, or statewide assessment on warehouse distribution facilities.” While I wouldn’t completely write off a state fuel tax hike in the future, the country’s inevitable (and likely rapid) shift toward electric vehicles this decade raises the urgency of finding an alternative source of funding.

A national bipartisan consensus is emerging around the need to transition to a mileage-based user fee (i.e. vehicle-miles travelled vs. energy consumption), and the previous surface transportation bill, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, established a program for state-level pilot projects to explore alternatives. The House Democrats’ proposed surface transportation reauthorization, the Moving America Forward Act, would increase funding for additional state pilots, and create a national pilot project. We’ll see what a Democratic trifecta (Presidency, Senate, House) does to the surface transportation bill we’ll see later this year, but the road-user fee pilots will almost certainly remain a part of it. Georgia did not participate in the last round of projects, but needs to be developing a framework it can begin to test, either as part of a national program or as an eventual replacement for our state fuel tax.

The other alternatives offered in the report, package delivery fees and warehouse assessments, will be necessary both to properly account for the toll of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles on our transportation system, and to level the playing field for locally-owned small businesses reliant on brick-and-mortar sales. We give generous local incentives to Amazon to build distribution facilities in exurbs staffed with $15/hour jobs it will eventually automate, and meanwhile, its trucks continue to clog our roads and damage our pavement. Levying appropriate taxes on warehouses/distribution facilities won’t deter construction of those facilities (after all, their consumers aren’t going anywhere), but will at least partially offset their real estate arbitrage. Per package delivery fees would incentivize more bundling of goods, reduce delivery frequency, and therefore lessen delivery truck impacts on urban congestion. Most importantly, revenue from all of these sources will ensure Georgia can make the investments necessary to maintain its leading position as a national logistics hub. The General Assembly should require a study to assess the implementation and impact of these revenue mechanisms.

4) Legalize special taxes on detached parking facilities. This one is pretty straightforward, and another instance where state pre-emption handicaps the ability of municipalities to effectively manage their local transportation systems. Atlanta has some of the cheapest parking costs in the country relative to other major cities, both in hourly and monthly rates. While commuters appreciate that cheap parking, it means more driving and less transit use, increasing congestion and Georgia’s infrastructure costs. In other words, there are significant negative externalities associated with free or cheap parking. As cities like Atlanta look for additional revenues to support transportation initiatives, including sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and transit, they should be able to assess special purpose fees or taxes on aspects of their local transportation systems.

Finally, detached parking facilities in urbanized areas also represent poor land uses from the standpoint of municipal finance. Assessments on both garages and surface lots are lower than properties developed for housing, office, and retail, to say nothing of their overall commercial or social value. Though COVID-19’s impact on commuting has certainly impacted long-term financial prospects for these facilities, adding taxes would further incentivize idle owners to sell for development.

The partisan makeup of both Assembly chambers, as well as Georgia’s statewide elected officials has kept Republicans in control of state’s transportation agenda. These recommendations are consistent with forward-thinking transportation policies the Republican-led Assembly has supported over the past decade, with a mind toward public safety, investing in the state’s world-class logistics infrastructure, and identifying appropriate revenue sources to ensure we can achieve these objectives with a balanced budget. Policies that would disproportionately benefit Atlanta (e.g. parking facility tax) may be a bridge too far at this point, but are nonetheless worth pursuing by the region’s Democratic representatives.

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