On April 16, President Barack Obama gave rail lovers some long-awaited good news: As part of the president’s stimulus plan, he offered $8 billion to begin linking major U.S. cities with high-speed rail lines — and an additional $5 billion more to improve rail service over the next four years.
“We need high-speed rail,” Obama said. “It’s happening right now. It’s been happening for decades. The problem is, it’s been happening elsewhere, not here.”
By “elsewhere,” the president was referring to Europe and Asia. But he could just as easily have been talking about Southeastern states other than Georgia. Thanks to a lack of vision, little to no funding, and an almost cartoonish addiction to roads, the Peach State’s far behind many of its neighbors when it comes to rail.
Transit and transportation advocates say if the state’s leadership doesn’t work to catch up, Georgia could miss out on a nationwide rail renaissance.
“We’re in a strategic spot,” says Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, of Obama’s rail plan that would connect Atlanta to Charlotte and Birmingham. “That’s the good news. The challenge is that our state is way, way behind North Carolina and Virginia because they’ve been working diligently on [rail] for 10 to 15 years.”
North Carolina’s Legislature is pushing through a funding proposal that allows counties to band together and levy a tax for transportation projects. Georgia lawmakers in April failed to pass similar legislation for the second consecutive year. They also were unwilling to grant MARTA access to more reserve funding — which means MARTA is now fighting to fend off service cuts. The Tarheel State’s been updating its statewide rail plan every two years. Georgia’s hasn’t been touched in a decade.
Virginia has taken steps similar to North Carolina. The state has a set-aside fund to improve rail lines and many of its projects are “shovel ready.”
“The crux of the issue is that we’ve had no vision in Georgia,” says Steve Vogel, president of the Georgia Association of Railroad Passengers. “And we’re getting farther behind the eight-ball now.”
Six months ago, the cash-strapped Georgia Department of Transportation kick-started a long-dormant rail program and hired Erik Steavens as its director. Steavens, who’s received praise from rail advocates for his experience and plans for the agency, says the state has completed preliminary studies for the Atlanta-Birmingham rail project — studies that states such as South Carolina and Alabama have yet to begin — and adds that Georgia’s conducting an environmental study for a high-speed rail line from Atlanta to Chattanooga.
But there’s still a long way to go, and transit advocates say two problems persist: the Legislature’s hesitancy to fund transit projects, and the absence of a transit-dedicated voice in the state’s leadership.
“The challenge for [Georgia] is the same issue we’ve had for some time,” says MARTA CEO and General Manager Beverly Scott. “We have not come to grips with the kind of investment we’re going to have to make to increase funding for transportation and infrastructure.”
According to state law, the Georgia Department of Transportation’s largest funding source, a motor fuel sales tax, can only be spent on roads and bridges — rather than public transportation projects such as light rail and commuter rail.
“I know everybody likes to beat up the DOT for the lack of rail in this state, but [the motor fuel sales tax] is the single biggest impediment to developing a rail system,” says DOT board member David Doss of Rome. “It's not that we have a bunch of backwoods, redneck board members who only believe in building more roads, as the mainstream media would have you believe. The problem is, zero dollars are available for rail.”
To change that antiquated equation — and to finally pass a funding measure that would generate much needed money for rail projects — advocates say the state also needs a political voice to support legislation under the Gold Dome.
Vogel and Williams say some state lawmakers — state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, state Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, and state Sen. Doug Stoner, D-Smyrna, among them — have pushed for some transit and rail plans, but the bulk of the work has fallen on the shoulders of Georgia’s local and federal politicians.
“It’s leadership primarily at the state level” that’s missing, Williams says. “[Clayton County Board Chairman] Eldrin Bell offered to find money to pay for [a 22-mile commuter rail line from Atlanta to Lovejoy].
Congressmen David Scott and John Lewis fought for decades for federal funds for [the Lovejoy line and a downtown terminal]. Our state government and state transportation leaders need to wake up, smell the coffee, and catch up.”
Perhaps Georgia lawmakers could be inspired by Mayor John Robert Smith from, of all places, Meridian, Miss., population 38,000.
Smith started pushing for commuter rail as a city councilman in the late 1980s. Although there was initially some opposition, he says, the energy he invested has paid off. After completing its downtown train and bus terminal with federal funding assistance, more than $200 million has been invested by developers in Meridian’s three-block radius. Condos, apartments and businesses are itching to be near the train station. Ridership’s so high, Smith says, he sometimes has a hard time finding a ticket.
Meanwhile, Atlanta’s Brookwood Amtrak station is overshadowed by the Downtown Connector and is inconveniently located several blocks from a MARTA station. The city’s long-planned downtown train terminal’s proposed site — the asphalt desert near Philips Arena and CNN Center commonly referred to as “the Gulch” — sits empty when it doesn’t serve as a parking lot.
And while Mississippi’s rail plans aren’t as far along as North Carolina's and Virginia’s, Smith says, the state has shown chutzpah. This year, its Legislature passed — and its governor signed — a bill that dedicates money to transit, while also balancing a budget.
On April 2, days before state lawmakers finished the legislative session, U.S. congressional members received a letter from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee warning them that any state that hasn’t used federal funding earmarked for road and transit projects is in danger of losing that money.
For Georgia, that means $87 million for the Atlanta-Lovejoy line — funding that the state’s congressional delegation secured in 1999 — could be lost. And a state Legislature that’s done little to take advantage of that and other opportunities will be to blame.