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Georgia and Atlanta moving towards transit, inch by inch

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/.

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.



  1. Jock Ellis December 5, 2009 8:27 am

    The AJC has a 1930s photo of Peachtree Street among the many great old shots it sells. The scene shows, I think, 17 trolleys and about an equal number of automobiles. It shows what the city could look like again if the auto were made redundant.
    However, summers when I was in college, I’d work for a major road builder. One day I was sent to the home of an elderly, retired DOT road inspector to put the tongue of his boat trailer back on a log from which it had fallen. Until MARTA can match this for service, the road interests will always have first dibs at transportation projects.Report

  2. juanita driggs December 5, 2009 12:58 pm

    Richardson’s departure is a good start for positive change. Thank you, Dale Russell, for staying at the top of your game! You led while all the other media in town meekly followed including channel 2.

    Now it’s time to hear just how committed gubernatorial hopefuls Roy Barnes and Atlanta’s next mayor are to getting back to the future about viable transportation initiatives. Nothing less than a full-fledged committment from these wannabees will do.

    Initial impressions of Mark Burkhalter suggest he “may” turn out to be an effective(i.e. constructive) legislator who can handle power well even though he’s still part of the majority do-nothing, no-nothing GOP establishment at the Gold Dome. Is my bias showing here? I hope so!

    Oxendine should endeavor to hold on to his State Insurance Commissioner/Fire Marshall gig since he’s already reached his level of incompetence. Unfortunately, people like him are the last to know such obvious things.Report

  3. Alan Yorker December 5, 2009 6:31 pm

    I would suggest that some serious attention should now be directed toward Minority Leader DuBose Porter, a long time rail advocate and environmental breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale Legisature. He is a champion for getting Georgia’s schools out out of the high forties and into the low thirties, an astounding feat and one we and our children deserve. He could be a leader for transit development, the Beltline, commuter rail and more. North Carolina started with a prorail Governor back in the 80’s, and we can now see how much they’ve achieved.Report


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