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Our Views: A state of road worriers
Next governor needs to better coordinate states funds, efforts to ease traffic gridlock
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At issue: Transportation

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We've all endured it many times. Sitting in traffic, engine idling, not moving, staring at the bumper of the car in front of you. You check your watch, you search for traffic reports on the radio and resign yourself to being late, again, for work or dinner.

We know it well because in North Georgia, traffic jams have become a modern way of life.

As the metro Atlanta area has grown and spilled into the far suburbs, including Hall, Jackson and other area counties, our region's roads are swarmed with ever more commuters, travelers and commercial vehicles, all adding to our daily frustration and foul air.

Yet long-term solutions to our travel needs have been just as gridlocked as the roads by a posturing legislature and a dysfunctional state bureaucracy.

In recent years, Georgia's Department of Transportation, DOT Board of Directors, the General Assembly and the governor have feuded over how to best allocate a dwindling supply of funds to upgrade our roads and transit systems. The DOT's budget was stained with red ink even before the recession hit, with many planned projects shelved for lack of funding. Meanwhile, roads and bridges crumbled and commuters sat fuming in lines of stagnant vehicles.

This is the mess the new governor will inherit next January, and one he or she needs to make a high priority over the next four years.

We can all agree our traffic problems go beyond just aggravation. When workers can't negotiate the roads and companies can't easily transport their goods, it has a negative impact on the state's already wheezing economy. Without a solution, the economic engine that is metro Atlanta will cease to attract new industry and jobs.

That's why most of the candidates for governor have addressed transportation policy as a key part of their campaigns. You can read a summary of their plans in this section today.

Each candidate has his or her own ideas of which projects should get the highest priority, whether a regional or statewide approach works best and how best to pay for new road work in a time of dwindling tax revenues. Beyond that, the biggest thing the new governor needs to be is an effective maestro to coordinate all the different factions in control of transportation dollars.

For too long, transportation in Georgia has been a political playground where power and influence counted more than planning and execution. Road projects have served as currency for politicians to hand out as contracts to supporters and new stretches of pavement for the voters back home, regardless whether such work fit with a coordinated plan and made a difference in easing traffic.

Part of this stems from the "two Georgias" problem: metro Atlanta, with its 4 million-plus residents all trying to crisscross the region to get to work, versus the rest of Georgia, which seeks new roads to transport agricultural and manufactured goods and lure new economic development to undernourished areas.

Both priorities are important, but the warring factions have sought to shuffle one ahead of the other and funnel DOT money more for political gain than as wise policy.

The next governor needs to assess our most pressing transportation needs from an objective, statewide perspective, calling upon experts and engineers to give him useful advice. In doing so, he should turn a deaf ear to special interests and political leaders all trying to cram their fingers into a shrinking pie.

And while the governor must demonstrate leadership, it can't be dictatorial. True solutions will require coalitions of support from the executive branch, lawmakers and the private sector.

The election victor also needs to sort out the state's muddled transportation bureaucracy. A bill passed by the legislature in 2009 created a new layer of leadership and gave the governor more direct control over DOT money and projects. Such a system can have merit, if used correctly. Yet members of the DOT board, the commissioner and other state leaders still need a say in what projects get the highest priority.

The governor should think big, focusing on major projects around the state that will benefit not just a handful of commuters or commercial interests but steer more wheels away from key arteries. For instance, the plan to create new bypass highways to draw travelers away from metro Atlanta will solve two problems at the same time, creating better flow around the most congested areas.

Similarly, smaller, local road projects should be fast-tracked when the planning, land acquisition and work is ready to be done, while more distant plans should be left on the shelf for the time being.

Everything needs to be considered, discussed and reviewed — mass transit, high-speed rail, and toll, HOV and HOT lanes — a comprehensive plan that incorporates all of the best ideas. The state also must address infrastructure needs, repairing existing bridges and roads. Our state has a good road system, usually near the top of national rankings, but it isn't getting the necessary upkeep. As a result, we often find ourselves dodging and bumping through potholes.

The new governor can accomplish several things at once by making transportation work better statewide. He or she will improve our economic future, the region's air quality and the quality of life for those who must travel the highways daily. Even more, such a leader will demonstrate an ability to facilitate solutions among varied and warring factions, an important trait for any effective statesman or stateswoman on a number of issues.

Pay close attention to the ideas each candidate has to get us off the highways and to our jobs and homes quicker each day. The one who can devise such a plan will go a long way toward earning your vote.

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