News - Double-crossed

Can Sonny Perdue remedy the state's growing schizophrenia?

Haul out the schizophrenia medication. Our state bureaucracy is once again demonstrating dissonance by design, with the left hand and right hand illogically pursing contradictory policies in the promotion of incompatible goals.

First, the Department of Natural Resources has told oil companies that by next April, they must start selling low-sulfur gasoline, which generates less pollution, in 45 North Georgia counties in and around metro Atlanta. This mandate is part of a package of measures to bring the region in compliance with the Clean Air Act, so we can continue to receive federal highway dollars.

Trouble is, the oil companies recently told the DNR board they couldn't meet this mandate, predicting a 40 percent shortage in low-sulfur fuel. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported that a 5 percent shortage can cause a 40 percent price increase. Extrapolating the math, pump prices of $3 or $4 could, theoretically, loom in our future.

But Environmental Protection Division director Harold Reheis urged the DNR board not to relax the new rule, insisting, in essence, that the oil companies are huffing and bluffing. (For his sake, he'd better hope he's right.) But it is instructive to note that when similar requirements were imposed in the Midwest two summers ago, gas rose to about $2.50 a gallon.

Meanwhile, even as consumers face the possibility of this per-gallon sprawl tax, another part of state government, the Department of Transportation, is plunging ahead (at least it was until Roy Barnes was swept aside by cranky voters) with plans to build more roads, including the Northern Arc, which will spill sprawl into vast new tracts of territory.

The Barnes administration actually went to court to defend a scheme to use the borrowing power of the State Road and Tollway Authority to finance an astounding $822 million in transportation projects, which will be paid back with federal funds given to the DOT. The Northern Arc isn't one of these projects, but the legal challenge to this scheme has come from Arc opponents, who believe that the same funding method will be used down the road to pave the way for that $2.2 billion boondoggle.

The authority was originally set up to collect the quarters we throw into the bins on Ga. 400, not to borrow and spend $822 million. State law also forbids state departments, such as the DOT, to sign contracts guaranteeing the debt of independent state authorities, such as SRTA. Now that Barnes is out of the picture, Sonny Perdue's first order of business ought to be to put a stake through the heart of this dubious scheme.

So here, in a nutshell, is the exhibition of schizophrenia: We consumers are being asked to pay more for gasoline to fix the air-quality problems caused by previous growth and sprawl so that we can get more federal money to fund new roads to facilitate more growth and sprawl. Which, of course, will make said air quality worse, requiring new mandates that will probably take more money out of our pockets. And so on.

In what universe, other than Georgia politics, would this be considered rational?

Requiring cleaner-burning gasoline to improve air quality, even at a higher cost, is a mandate that could be sold to metro Atlantans — if, at the same time, state government was taking concrete, good-faith steps to fix the underlying problems that caused our deteriorating air, namely limiting growth and sprawl. But to impose this burden on consumers while, at the same time, taking actions that encourage yet more growth and sprawl is unconscionable.

Instead of incurring new debt to build more roads, we ought to ration the addition of new infrastructure — particularly highways and water supplies — to shut down sprawl. We ought to change state laws that now tilt toward developers, allowing local communities to actively discourage growth. We ought to realize that our addiction to growth has become a serious detriment to the quality of life in metro Atlanta — and that slapping Band-Aids on the problems it causes won't cure the underlying wound.

Such issues percolate at the grassroots, and I would be tempted to suggest that they played a role in Barnes' demise — except for the fact that none of the major candidates for governor or lieutenant governor offered any truly innovative thinking about reining in growth. We didn't hear any of this lot stand up and say, "Four million people in metro Atlanta are quite enough, thank you very much."

Oh well, maybe next time.

Meanwhile, if Perdue wants to get off on the right foot, he may not want to ask us to pony up $3 a gallon for gasoline if the only plan for managing growth is business as usual.


Buckhead writer Richard Shumate's left brain and right brain often exhibit contradictory ideologies in the promotion of political schizophrenia.??

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