OEDEL: Roads royalty quietly re-crowned

December 22, 2013 

Macon’s metropolitan planning organization, locally known as the Macon Area Transportation Study or MATS, has called the local shots on transportation since the 1970s.

Tightly controlled now by Mayor-elect Robert Reichert, MATS quietly voted last week to change its bylaws to make itself even more remote and aloof from public concerns. It enshrined a block of beholden voting members that the mayor can largely rely upon to endorse what he decides.

Until now, the county commission chairman and county-affiliated members served as a check on the mayor and his block, and vice versa. No longer, if this change becomes permanent.

Should anyone care? Yes, because insularity has resulted in a dysfunctional MATS already, and this change will make matters worse.

MATS has to be counted as substantially responsible for Macon’s longstanding transportation planning woes, fumbling one decision after another, such as blasting overblown raceways to sprawlsville while isolating poor, carless residents. But MATS answers mostly just to itself and keeps its decision process largely out of sight.

Sophisticated insiders know that if you control MATS, you control millions of undesignated dollars and amass political power over underling politicians and residents interested in possible projects. Those politicians managing to control MATS have revealed themselves as more concerned about advancing dubious, ill-conceived transportation notions and consolidating their power, not primarily exploring the broader interests of the public that MATS ostensibly serves. The lure of unchecked power through control of MATS has proved irresistible even to otherwise responsible leaders. Reichert is just the latest example.

MATS’ lack of accountability results in both pain for the powerless as well as defective projects delivered to so-called “winners.”

For example, Jeffersonville Road has warranted improvement for decades, but because area residents lacked political pull in MATS, that project languished, just as Houston Road’s proposed repairs were put off interminably.

Conversely, MATS rashly, mindlessly over-sized Zebulon Road east of the commercial area near the I-475 interchange, causing neighborhood degradation at great expense with insufficiently compensating benefits.

Though some might have thought they “won” by getting public money thrown that way, it’s unfortunate for Zebulon’s residents to have had public funds wasted to destroy their neighborhood for almost nothing.

Protracted fights over Forest Hill Road’s scale also simmered while intersection improvements were held up in a pointless standoff. A cooperative approach would have resulted in something that everyone could have lived with. Under MATS’ new scheme of super-centralized power, cooperation with citizen groups will be even less likely.

MATS proudly estimates that supersizing the I-16/I-75 interchange will gobble up more than half of all public funding for transportation locally for the next 25 years, over $300 million, even though most people don’t favor this overcooked plan. Now, even Georgia’s Department of Transportation ironically criticizes the project’s scale as absurdly wasteful. Reichert, who defiantly continues to champion supersizing the interchange, could now have the power to ram it through.

Macon’s not unique in having difficulty incorporating public interests in transportation planning. MPOs nationwide share many of the same challenges in fairly, effectively representing the public citizenry that federal law says they’re supposed to represent.

Federal law was involved in the creation of all MPOs, and that same federal law indicates that it’s ultimately in Georgia’s governor’s hands to reconfigure MATS after consolidation.

Middle Georgia’s state representatives and senators are now appropriately considering whether to invite Gov. Nathan Deal to appoint a group to consider how best to reconfigure transportation planning in our area. That is the governor’s ultimate prerogative in this setting. If asked by the delegation, Deal should certainly exercise that prerogative.

Outgoing Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart told me that Deal should intervene. To his credit, Reichert conceded that he’d accept gubernatorial intervention, albeit on condition that any inquiry include consideration of regional consolidation of Macon-Bibb’s MPO with Houston County’s contiguous MPO.

Middle Georgia’s transportation issues need rethinking. MATS, dysfunctional already, is about to get worse. Regionalism may make sense. It’s time for Deal to explore options.

David Oedel teaches transportation law at Mercer law school.

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