OEDEL: Minnie’s message to our local deciders

December 16, 2012 

At an October Georgia Department of Transportation public relations event in Pleasant Hill, a smart, properly annoyed 82-year-old resident, Minnie Grinell, lambasted the GDOT project manager and consultants who were the faces for Macon Area Transportation Study pushing a vastly expanded I-75/I-16 interchange. Elected officials like Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart and Macon Mayor Robert Reichert were absent, though they together for the past four years have carefully controlled MATS, the commissar commission for all local transportation planning. MATS, not GDOT or U.S. Department of Transportation, is the legally empowered decision-maker on all major transportation matters in and around Macon.

Hart himself set the stage for that Pleasant Hill event by declaring in September that MATS was “on the money” in planning to spend more than $300 million on the I-75/I-16 expansion, about half of all public funding on area transportation for the next 28 years. Out of money, and empty of sense, would have been a more accurate characterization of MATS’ plan, even though it would include a $10 million bone to Pleasant Hill for mitigation.

One concept that seems to elude our local officials and GDOT alike is how to weigh the relative human value of possible alternatives for public spending on transportation.

For instance, MATS can’t seem to appreciate the meaning of death. The Telegraph ran a telling story sometime back detailing where deaths are occurring on Bibb’s roads and highways. Over the many years studied, only one death was associated with the I-75/I-16 interchange. In contrast, during the same period, the Vineville racetrack, complete with its suicide lane and predictable pedestrian crossings, was associated with many fatalities. Other multi-lane getaways, like Eisenhower, the Gray and Emery Highways, Mercer University and Riverside, each were associated with more losses in life than the I-75/I-16 interchange.

In 2010 and 2011 alone, there were 29 deaths on Macon roads. Sixteen of those souls were pedestrians nailed by traffic roaring along multi-lane arterial speedways, not the interstate. Ten years ago, Macon was identified as the most dangerous place for pedestrians in the nation. Macon’s police chief at that time publicly scoffed at the charge, but the recent statistics prove such a label to have been roughly accurate.

While staggering sums have been poured into Bibb’s roads and highways in the last 50 years, more generous funding by population than anywhere else in Georgia by far, Bibb has realized almost no population growth as a result. Bibb’s population was 141,249 in 1960, yet only 155,557 in 2010 (and almost all of that meager 10 percent gain came before 1980). Since 1960, by contrast, Georgia’s overall population has grown 146 percent, from 3,943,116 to 9,687,653, at a rate more than 14 times faster than Macon’s.

What has Bibb done over the past 50 years with its enormous investments in roads and highways? Send roughly the same number of people rattling around a bigger cage at higher speeds, killing pedestrians and drivers alike at predictably higher rates.

At GDOT’s PR meeting in September, Grinell offered the consultants sage advice: that the experts should switch their focus to improving roads like Vineville and away from the interstate interchange. She was dead right.

MATS could easily test the merits of Grinell’s insight by temporarily closing Vineville’s suicide lane with some well-placed signs and striping that would still allow safe use of the center lane, but only for turns. We’d get more bang for the buck in lives saved by addressing the Vineville deathtrap essentially for free, rather than throwing hundreds of millions of borrowed dollars at the interstate interchange to save roughly one life per decade.

Such an experiment could also simultaneously test the potential effects of traffic calming on Vineville’s traffic flow, congestion, businesses and neighborhoods. Similar traffic-calming experiments elsewhere suggest that flow would not be reduced appreciably, congestion would be channeled to the turn lane, and the contiguous businesses and neighborhoods would be meaningfully aided by our neighbors’ surer and safer passage. Whether that would prove true for Vineville is obviously debatable, but could be tested easily and cheaply.

Of course, another way to gauge the advisability of public funding for transportation is the potential for mitigating congestion. Gridlock can result in lifetimes lost too, if measured only a minute at a time. But by that measure as well, the interstate interchange is barely snarled, certainly not enough to warrant spending hundreds of millions of public dollars.

The interchange’s worst congestion, waiting to exit at Spring Street, is not overlong by most cities’ standards, and could be fixed in any event at a tiny fraction of the proposed cost.

Usually it’s the feds who throw public money away at bad and/or unconstitutional projects, but this time, the stupid award goes to MATS. Minnie Grinell knows, and she’s not alone. A coalition of 53 community groups served notice on both Hart and Reichert in 2008 that supersizing the interstate exchange can’t possibly hold water as thoughtful stewardship, all things considered. Hart and Reichert have spurned those groups, just as they’ve spurned Minnie Grinell.

Both leaders seem poised to run for mayor of the consolidated Bibb County, but they each and together have had four or more years already to show that they could have made a difference by turning the ship of MATS around.

Next year, I expect both Hart and Reichert will find their MATS decisions to play poorly as a political matter, and that their legacy as transportation decision makers will be defined by fiscal abandon, thoughtless choices, and surprising callousness.

David Oedel teaches about transportation law and constitutional law at Mercer University Law School.

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