"Something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you Mr. Jones?"
-- Bob Dylan, "Ballad of a Thin Man"
It feels Dylan-esque these days. Maybe it's watching the return of the protest movement by Occupy Wall Street that brings Dylan to mind. But sitting at a standstill in my district watching the HOT lane boondoggle not reduce traffic is what really has me asking, "What's happening here?"
It's not just the concentration of wealth among a few that is fueling the large scale support of the protester's message of "We're the 99 percent." It's a real sense that the folks running our government aren't even slightly interested in making government work for us. Sitting on Interstate 85 at 4:30 p.m. looking at an unused and unworkable empty HOT lane, I see why people think that. We have a crowd that's so wedded to the ideology of shrinking government that they don't care that, in fact, government has to do some things for America and that you cannot fix big problems on the cheap.
You certainly can't do that with transportation. Painting more lines on a road rather than investing in new construction and smarter methods of moving people is cheap, but doesn't fix the problem. Creating cumbersome entry and exit points based on costs, not traffic flow, keeps a project under budget but still doesn't fix the problem. Shifting the costs onto middle class consumers because you won't ask folks at the top to pay their fair share makes the projected budget look low, but certainly doesn't fix the problem.
The HOT lane mess shows how a rigid ideology like this never helps Mr. Jones. It's all about doing as little as possible to help average people's quality of life and wasting government savings on tax breaks to the chosen 1 percent, rather than seeking practical, real-world solutions. In fact, Robert Poole, the creator of the HOT lane concept, told the state DOT that the plan they developed was the least effective option for a city like Atlanta and that it would likely make traffic worse. However, votes were cast for the plan anyway, just because it was the cheapest. And in order to make the budget look even smaller, high tolls were included to shift even more of the burden onto the middle class drivers trying to get home after a day of work.
Why? The state DOT wanted the "free" federal money offered to create HOT lanes to dole out to wealthy, politically connected contractors, but didn't want the same 1 percent to have to put up anything to build a project that would work.
If this was just one instance of waste, we would shrug it off as another joke about government fat cats. But what has ordinary folks quietly supporting the Occupy Wall Street message and intensely disgusted at this HOT lane boondoggle is that people know something is happening. They may not know what it is, but it's bigger than one bad road project, and it's making them mad.
When people realize their government is making it harder for them to educate their kids, harder for them to get a job, and now making it harder for them to just get home, they get angry. Whether they're camped out in Woodruff Park or stuck on Buford Highway, people are angry when government isn't working for them. The question is: Will those running our government start trying to make government work for their constituents before Mr. and Mrs. Jones get what's happening here?
Curt Thompson is a Democratic state senator from Tucker.