Ask Jane or Johnny Bikerider in Savannah what route is most needed to make a better place to bicycle, and they — like most of their bike–riding buddies — will say a safe connection from Savannah to Tybee.
Easy for them to say, but there are serious gaps to fill to make self propelled travel an option for that trip — so many miles of narrow shoulder pocked by rumble strips and too–narrow bridges.
The holy grail of Chatham County bikeways (the most desired bike facility in the area, according to a 2010 Savannah Bicycle Campaign survey), this 16-mile stretch should be a major conduit not only for fun and exercise (think vacationers headed for a day at the beach and locals out to jack up their heart rates), but also for transportation, linking island residents to job centers in Savannah and Tybee safely. Unquestionably, this is a huge opportunity for economic development.
So if it’s so obvious and important, why hasn’t it happened? A great question, and though there are plenty of possible answers, it boils down to a lack of political will. However, we do have an important opportunity coming up to voice that will, and to take huge steps toward, among other things, making a safe Savannah–Tybee bikeway a reality.
That opportunity is the upcoming transportation referendum on July 31, also known as T-SPLOST.
Projects were selected for our region, including highways and yes, bikeways. Among those projects are new bridges with bike facilities on Islands Expressway over the Wilmington River, on US 80 over Bull River and Lazaretto Creek, and on the Savannah–Whitemarsh bikeway, all critical links of the bike chain linking Savannah to Tybee.
Now, there are some who say the Transportation Investment Act of 2010 was the wrong way for Georgia to go about fixing transportation problems like the Savannah–Tybee bikeway. They say that it was a cop–out for legislators to ask voters to tax themselves rather than take the difficult steps needed on their own.
While I think there’s some truth in that, the reality of the situation is that an alternative solution, even if possible, wouldn’t be on the horizon for many years to come.
Some say that the referendum without a backup plan is no better than blackmail. Far from it. It’s a choice like any we have to make — pain or pleasure, spend or save, boxers or briefs. So this choice is for action or inaction, and both have consequences, but in the end it’s a fair choice.
Was this the best way to do it? Probably not. Was this the way the General Assembly did it after years of failure? Yes. Can we expect the Georgia legislature to change their tune and pass a revenue increase on their own to do it? Not in our lifetime.
The naysayers also say 10 years is too long an authorization, since other SPLOST measures are six years. Do we think the problem is going away? Transportation projects take a long time, and planning for them happens with 30–year plans broken into smaller ones. And like the length or not, it’s how the law was written — we don’t have a six-year option to pick from.
And on that note, just to illustrate the point and the difficulties we face if we don’t vote yes, let’s just take a look at some realities: Georgia has the fourth lowest gas tax of any state; the obvious result is lower spending on transportation.
The effect of that is multiplicative — for example, when Georgia goes to ask for federal money for conventional transportation projects, the federal government often rightfully declines, noting how poorly we are paying our own way.
As for those who worry over “political favoritism” in the proposed authorization, if it exists, it is wide open for examination. An open process was conducted, which produced a regional project list the sales tax would fund — you can take a look at it any time you want (http://connectgeorgia2012.com/coastal/).
If anything, Chatham County is in the driver’s seat on the regional projects. For anyone interested in growing the vitality of our community by through alternatives to transportation enclosed in individually packaged containers of glass and steel, many bike, pedestrian and transit improvements are on the regional list. There are plenty of projects primarily for cars, too, like the I–16 ramp removal and widening between I–95 and I–516 and the DeRenne Connector, to name just a couple.
Fortunately, there is increasing interest in local government, and yes, at the Georgia Department of Transportation, in building “complete streets” that accommodate all users — motorists, transit riders, bicyclists and pedestrians. Hopefully, then, if the state and local governments enact Complete Streets policies, many of the road projects will also include bike and pedestrian facilities as a matter of course.
So, my bottom line — and the bottom line for anyone in favor of not just increasing, but also in diversifying our transportation network — is that the July 31 vote is our best hope for the next several years, at least to start making significant headway.
If we decide not to go that way, we won’t be pulling our bikes off the lumpy shoulder to Tybee any time soon.