Few words in the English language should scare you more than these: “We have to do something!”
That’s particularly true when they come from the mouth of a politician.
We hear these sorts of demands often, usually tied to some sort of emotional appeal or contrived timeline. What we don’t often do is look back at what happened when we didn’t “do something” — or at least, didn’t do what was demanded at the time. So it’s worth looking at one of those times.
Back in 2012, Georgians were confronted with 12 regional T-SPLOST referendums. The idea was for each region to draw up a list of transportation-infrastructure projects that could be built with a 10-year, 1% sales tax.
While each part of the state was covered by one of the regions, the impetus behind the plan was the need to add capacity in metro Atlanta.
For months, voters in metro Atlanta in particular were told two things by those who formed a seemingly large consensus in favor of their region’s list. First: There is no “Plan B.”
Second? You guessed it: We have to do something!
Those who supported the tax knew simply talking about traffic congestion wasn’t enough. They had to come up with some kind of number for what metro Atlantans would get for the $7.2 billion they were being asked to tax themselves over a decade (with more money sure to follow).
Here’s the number they came up with: The plan, a mix of road improvements and new transit services, would reduce congestion by 24 percent.
Now, 24 percent is not nothing. But ultimately the voters in metro Atlanta didn’t believe it, or didn’t believe it was worthwhile. They voted down the tax by a margin of 63 percent to 37 percent. Elsewhere in Georgia, the tax passed in just three regions.
This outcome was said to be a disaster. After all, there was no Plan B, right? We had to do something! And we didn’t.
Until we did.
Three years later, the General Assembly voted to increase the gas tax statewide and devote all of it to roads and bridges. Just four years after that, we already see some of the fruits of the Plan B we were told did not, and would not, exist.
On I-75 through Henry County, and on I-75 and I-575 through Cobb and Cherokee counties, sets of reversible toll lanes are already open, and already having an impact.
In both instances, traffic is flowing more freely not only for those who pay to use the lanes, but for those who remain in the un-tolled, general-purpose lanes. The most recent data from I-75/575 are especially instructive as we consider the “do something” mantra — from the 2012 T-SPLOST vote, and more generally.
The Georgia DOT last month reported that the average speed during the afternoon rush hour on I-75 northbound, between I-285 and I-575, reached 40 mph during April 2019. That was double the 20 mph rush-hour motorists endured in April 2018, before the new lanes opened. And those were the figures for the general-purpose lanes; speeds in the express lanes were even faster.
“As a result,” the Georgia DOT reported, “the corridor’s rush hour has been reduced by more than one hour during both the morning and evening commutes, benefiting both (express-lane) motorists and drivers in the general purpose lanes.”
Those figures, and other early returns from the projects, show an improvement of much more than the 24 percent promised by the T-SPLOST.
True, they don’t affect the entire metro region. But that will come as the state continues building a network of express lanes.
The lesson here, whether you live in metro Atlanta, benefit from the reduced travel times when driving there from elsewhere in Georgia, or simply get tired of the “do something” rhetoric, is clear. There’s almost always another chance to do something better, instead of just doing something now.
Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.org.