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Commentary: Officials need to convince voters to approve amendment to fund road projects
1219VPOINT.Mike Evans
Mike Evans

ABOUT THIS SERIES

Each Sunday through the beginning of the 2011 General Assembly, The Times is taking a look at some of the key issues that Gov.-elect Nathan Deal and state lawmakers will face.

Dec. 5: Val Perry, the executive vice president of the Lake Lanier Association, the challenges that state leaders will face reaching a compromise on water. Read it here.

Last Sunday: Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield examines what the legislature can do to improve education. Read it here.

Today: Former DOT board member Mike Evans gives his thoughts on how transportation needs can be paid for.

Dec. 26: Gainesville businessman Doug Carter, the incoming president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, suggests ways that state leaders can help jump-start the state’s economy.

Jan. 2: Former state Sen. Lee Hawkins gives advice to the many new faces in Atlanta on how they can quickly learn how to do their new jobs.

Hopefully, the November election sent a ripple through the transportation community and provided a wake-up call to leadership in Georgia that our current solution to transportation funding is in jeopardy.

While it might have been lost on the general public, the votes on the constitutional amendments should have provided a clear understanding to transportation officials as to where the public stands on two issues - a new tax or "fee" and transportation. Constitutional Amendment No. 2 for the trauma care centers was the only tax issue on the ballot and failed miserably. Amendment No. 3 on the ballot was to allow GDOT to use multi-year contracting to "finance" construction projects over multiple years and it too failed.

In the 2012 presidential primary, we combine both issues - a new tax and transportation - into a single question for the general public to decide. So what are our next steps to ensure this referendum is successful which connects directly to Georgia's ability to compete for jobs, new businesses moving to Georgia, and overall economic prosperity?

We already are losing business opportunities as a state, and particularly, relocation opportunities for Fortune 500 companies because of our transportation problems. It is difficult to quantify how many opportunities are lost because many times Georgia is precluded from consideration because of our transportation congestion reputation around the country.

Consequently, Georgia does not get to the shortlist and does not get the opportunity to advocate the attributes Georgia has to offer to businesses.

So again, what do we need to succeed? Often on a constitutional amendment, there are not many natural advocates that will engage and actively and loudly support the amendment. Many times it is the right answer to a problem; however, it is not explained well to the public how it will impact them personally and why its passage is important to them and to our state.

In my opinion, most advocates take the approach that mass marketing through 30-second TV commercials in the few weeks before the election will win the day. However, as with the trauma center amendment, we saw that tactic did not work. Most citizens were moved by those trauma center ads, but not moved enough to vote "yes" for the amendment.

Successful candidates inundate the airways right before an election that usually leads to ultimate victory on election night. But what the advocates and supporters fail to see in these successful campaigns is the significant grass-roots effort that takes place in the year before the election that cause the last month of TV ads to resonate with voters.

In order for this referendum to pass in 2012, a grass-roots effort must take place and it must start with our new governor and General Assembly. The legislature approved the ability for Georgia citizens to cast a vote on this issue, but their work is not finished. Legislators need to play a role in their local communities to support this amendment.

Gov.-elect Nathan Deal, while not in office when it passed, understands clearly the importance of transportation to our state for business and to Georgia citizens who sit in congestion instead of sitting at the dinner table with their family. A grass-roots effort that involves state leadership, county commissions, city officials, local and state media outlets has to take place.

Time is running short; we need to start now on organizing, planning and developing all levels of state, county, and city support. In order to get that level of advocacy, people need to understand the benefits of the referendum and the consequences of failure.

The consequences of this failure are not very attractive. While no bill is ever perfect, this bill passed by the legislature is the best hope we have for funding a portion of our transportation solution and frankly, our only option on the table at this point.

Second, if it doesn't pass, then we will have wasted a few more years getting to the vote - and we don't have that kind of time to sit and wait. Georgia is already 49th in the country in transportation funding.

North Carolina is becoming more competitive every day with high speed rail potential. Florida is light years ahead of us in infrastructure development and Texas has closed on multiple public private partnership ventures; and also, in Texas, Dallas has recently launched more transit options in the form of commuter rail for their citizens.

Finally, if it fails, the General Assembly will be faced with addressing transportation funding, unilaterally - after the public has voted not to support the issue - a very lonely place for a politician.

But remember, even if we have strong leadership, local officials understand the referendum and support it, and the regional commissions can agree upon a project list, this referendum represents only a portion of the funds needed to solve our transportation problems.

We still have to address where transit, public private partnerships, tolling, and where land use fits into our transportation future in Georgia. But we need to take this first step, together, from the governor's office to the individual citizen to understand, consider and eventually solve a growing problem in our state.

Mike Evans is a former Chairman of the Georgia Department of Transportation Board and currently lobbies and consults for the Strollo Group, an Atlanta based governmental relations firm.

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