By Jeanne Bonner
Hope tinged with realism marked Friday’s Sustainable Roundtable on the future of transit in Atlanta held at All Saints Episcopal Church in Midtown.
Or was it realism softened ever so slightly by a bit of a hope?
Speakers Erik Steavens, director of the Georgia Department of Transportation’s Intermodal Programs, and Lee Biola, president of Citizens For Progressive Transit, sketched out the current status of transit in Atlanta and Georgia.
They both made a case for why one could be optimistic that more public transportation is in the state’s immediate future, and simultaneously, why there’s still good reason to be skeptical.
First, the optimism.
Michael Dobbins, a professor at Georgia Tech and a former city planning official, said he had “written off the state legislature this year” in terms of passing a transportation bill, but wondered if the forecast had brightened now that House Speaker Glenn Richardson had stepped down. (Richardson announced his resignation Thursday, following renewed ethics allegations).
The event’s speakers demurred, but state Rep. Kathy Ashe (D-Atlanta) didn’t hesitate to answer.
“I think the new speaker will make a difference,” Ashe said. “We’ve taken out one of the very negative voices.”
In addition, Steavens said that for the first time Georgia has created a state rail plan that explores a number of possibilities, including the use of existing freight lines for intercity rail travel.
Steavens ticked off several interesting transit projects around the state, including a small, revived streetcar line in Savannah, the renovation of an old train station in Macon where the city’s buses now stop and the initial stirrings of interest in a streetcar line in Augusta. He said Pres. Obama’s interest in mass transit is bolstering projects around the country.
“There is a rail revolution going on,” Steavens said. “There is a transit revolution going on in this country.”
But Steavens reminded the audience that many other states are vying for federal dollars to build or expand transit systems, including North Carolina where streetcars have already sprouted up in Charlotte.
Georgia’s house and senate have failed to pass a transportation bill that would allot more funding for transit in the past three sessions of the General Assembly. And even if an existing bill from last year’s session, which would add a penny to the state sales tax, passes during the next session, it would be just a start, not a cure-all, he said.
“Even if the one-cent sales tax bill passes, it won’t be enough to fund” all of the state’s transportation needs, including maintaining roads and bridges, and expanding transit, Steavens said.
Nonetheless, he said the region has made strides in working together, particularly in the formation of the Transit Implementation Board. The next step, he said, is getting the state legislature on board.
“What we need is foot soldiers in the war to stimulate the legislature,” Steavens said.
The recent past gives little reason to be optimistic. MARTA has struggled under the weight of legislative funding provisions that often leave the transit system starved for operating capital; it raised its fares this year but reduced service. GDOT has received funds to build a rail line between Lovejoy and Atlanta, but has failed to use them. And one possible candidate for governor, John Oxendine, has proposed a new North-South highway that would level several existing in-town neighborhoods.
And yet, Biola, whose organization is considered the lead advocate for sustainable transportation in Atlanta, pointed to a more distant past when 25 streetcar lines served Atlanta, and one could easily navigate the city without a car.
He said when All Saints Church was built on West Peachtree Street in 1906, residents could walk one block up to Peachtree Street and hop on a streetcar that would take them to all points in the city, and also connect them to rail lines that linked the state’s major population centers.
Showing a slide of a 1919 map of Atlanta, Biola said developers flocked to erect buildings right on the streetcar line. Indeed, Joel Hurt, who brought the streetcar to Atlanta in 1890, successfully flipped a piece of property in the hinterlands by building a streetcar line to it that rendered the land valuable to developers.
Atlanta once had “world-class transit,” Biola said, and it can have it again.
MARTA, in conjunction with the City of Atlanta, the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District and the Midtown Improvement District have submitted an application for federal stimulus funding to pay for a streetcar line that would serve Peachtree St., starting at the Five Points Station. Steavens said Atlanta should hear back early next year if the application was successful. And if it’s a go, the line would be up and running by 2012.
The competition for stimulus dollars for mass transit, however, is fierce. And it won’t fix MARTA’s problems. Nor is it likely to change deeply-ingrained attitudes of some state legislators, including one who famously said he lives closer to Disney World than MARTA.
When asked about the impact of Richardson’s departure from the statehouse, Biola said he’s learned never to predict what the state legislature will do.
“Every year, they say, ‘This is the year,’ and maybe this is the year and maybe that was the change that was needed,” he said of the transportation bill.
Southface holds a roundtable discussion the first Friday of each month. The organization promotes sustainable living by providing training, awarding grants and educating the public about the benefits of environmental building practices.
Jeanne Bonner is a freelance writer who blogs about smart growth for http://atlantaunsheltered.com/ and http://mygreenatl.com/.