Atlanta roundtable trying to figure out transit investment; Charlotte, N.C. shows the way

For decades, the third rail for transit in Georgia has been money.

The state’s gas tax is constitutionally limited to funding roads and bridges — giving the state a convenient excuse for not investing in public transit or alternative transportation modes, such as sidewalks, bicycle and multi-purpose paths.

As a result, almost all of the state’s transit systems have been financed by county governments, or in the case of the Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb — the one-penny MARTA sales tax.

But now metro Atlanta has an opportunity to pass a one-penny transportation sales tax for the 10-county region in a 2012 referendum.

And those could be the most “precious” transportation dollars we’ve ever had because we finally have a mechanism to pay for the development of transit, sidewalks and bikeways.

On June 1, the Georgia Department of Transportation issued the “unconstrained” list of transportation projects in the Atlanta region — a $22.9 billion wish list, including $14 billion for 66 transit projects. The list also includes $8.6 billion for roads, $27 million for aviation and $204 million for bicycle and pedestrian projects.

Now the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable is the unenviable task of trimming down the list of projects to match what the tax could possibly raise over its 10-year lifespan, if the sales tax is approved.

Currently, it is estimated the tax will raise between $6 billion and $8 billion over 10 years (Georgia State University will be releasing new estimates in the coming week).

So the executive committee of the Roundtable met on June 9th to try to figure how to decide which projects should be included in the list presented to voters next year.

Among the issues that could narrow the list include whether projects significantly reduce congestion, whether they can be completed within the 10-year time frame, whether the projects fit into a regional vision, whether the projects promote sustainable development patterns, whether the projects are geographically balanced and equitable, or whether the projects make economic sense.

Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd said another factor should be considered. “I’m looking at projects that don’t have other avenues of funding,” Floyd said.

Bingo.

If state dollars from the motor fuel tax are available for interchange improvements, why should we use these “precious” sales tax dollars on projects that can be financed through other means?

Of course, the ultimate goal should be to get the state to become a true investor in public transportation, be it commuter rail, light rail, streetcars, and bus systems. So far, the only real consistent state funding for transit has been for part of the costs of running the XPress bus system operated by the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA).

Remember, MARTA is the largest transit system in the country that receives virtually no funding from its state government.

That point really hit home on June 8th during the Metro Atlanta Northern Crescent Transit Summit held at the Cobb Galleria.

Pat McCrory, the former Republican mayor of top Atlanta competitor — Charlotte, N.C., had made the development of light rail a centerpiece of his administration.

On this issue, McCrory encouraged leaders in the Atlanta region to embrace new transit development — just like he did in Charlotte.

“We in the entire (Southern) region have to work together,” McCrory told the gathering of hundreds of business and government leaders from the north metro area. “In the whole I-85 corridor, we are in this together. Our competition is not each other.”

So then McCrory shared his wisdom.

“Everything you do must be integrated with what your vision is, not just a transportation vision but a development vision,” McCrory said.

As a way to make his point, McCrory showed a picture of a commercial strip with loads of concrete, ugly billboards and little signs of urban vitality.

“I call these ‘corridors of crap,’” McCrory said. “I call this ‘anywhere USA.’ You have got to redevelop these corridors. As goes the commercial districts, so go your neighborhoods.”

Then McCrory showed how such corridors were transformed once light rail was added.

“You need to start showing pictures,” McCrory said about how to sell the transportation to tax to prospective voters. “Show them what it will look like if they implement transit.”

In Charlotte, McCrory’s message was to create “the best of Mayberry in Metropolis” as a way of telling voters they could have the best of both worlds — big city, small town.

McCrory said the backers of light rail were able to communicate their passion about improving Charlotte’s quality of life, sustainability, not just for today but for generations to come.

But McCrory also was able to communicate that passion to the state of North Carolina. Funding for Charlotte’s light rail system was: 50 percent from the federal government, 25 percent from a local sales tax AND 25 percent in state funding.

So how did McCrory convince state leaders to invest in Charlotte’s transit system?

First, McCrory convinced state leaders that transit would improve Charlotte’s economic development potential, and he got the governor on board.

Plus, McCrory’s argument was that Charlotte contributed greatly to the North Carolina’s tax revenues. And as the state’s economic engine, Charlotte deserved its share of state’s revenues. (Now substitute Atlanta and Georgia in that same argument).

After McCrory’s comments, Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, one of the most influential leaders in the region, made a ground-breaking statement.

“I think the state should invest in transit in the metro region,” said Johnson, who is chairing the executive committee of the regional roundtable. “The state needs to put some money in transit. I think the governor needs to get involved in this.”

Bingo again.

If Georgia were a true partner in strengthening metro Atlanta’s economic vitality, the state would invest in transit in the same way that North Carolina has invested in Charlotte’s light rail system.

Imagine how much further our regional transportation sales tax dollars would go if the state were to match the local contributions in transit, and if the state were to invest in rail projects that cross over several metro regions, ie: helping pay for commuter trains between Atlanta and Macon.

But the Georgia Department of Transportation recently pressured Erik Steavens, its director of intermodal programs and senior rail transportation expert, into resigning from his position — resurfacing questions about the state’s commitment to rail and alternative modes of transportation.

And then there’s that question of funding.

Now here is a dirty little secret. Georgia DOT has been able to invest in transit, sidewalks and bikeways all along.

Every time someone buys a gallon of gas, 7.5 cents is the gas tax. But a driver also pays a 4-cent state sales tax on that purchase. Of that, 3 cents goes into GDOT’s pockets and 1 cent goes into the state’s general fund.

That state sales tax has no constitutional restrictions meaning there is NO reason for the state to sit on the sidelines when it comes to developing a transit system for the Atlanta region.

Bottom line. Some way, some how, we must find a way to invest in transit once and for all — be it through a “precious” regional sales tax or through direct state funding or preferably both.

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.

20 replies
  1. Writes_of_weigh says:

    The “dirty little secret” is actually a “dirty little political conundrum”……say perchance, you are an ex-Georgia Governor with agri-business grain interests, or maybe an ex-U.S. President with agri-business peanut interests, and if those interests involve moving your “product” to market(s) through Georgia ports (Cordele Inland and Savannah) to maybe Cuba, and say you needed a railroad to move your products, with all this ex-influence, you just might be in a position to “help” upgrade rail and port facilities to aid and abet the “movement” of your product, so that in the end, you’ll have a profit to show for your “effort”, and a side benefit or repeatedly rebuilding the railroad, between these two points, you just might be able to operate a tour train to your boyhood home, despite as ex-Governor or President you weren’t able to convince the “masses” that Amtrak was viable, energy-efficient transportation that might have been utilized to move(via rail)tens of thousands of passengers yearly from Atlanta, through Lovejoy to Macon, and Savannah, and vice=versa or that a “Brain Train” was a viable utilization of valuable “state owned resources”, but somehow, some way, it works for you in SOuthWEstGA, and is profitable enough to repeatedly invest the “people’s resources” in,
    there truly is a conundrum, or possibly just high deception and “smoke and mirrors?”
    To iterate, once again, the above referenced “tour train” is already owned and operated “by the Good citizens of the State of Georgia” and those Central Georgia tracks have been “rebuilt” at least twice, with tax payor “resources.” “Houston….come in Houston….”we have a problem”………..Report

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  2. Writes_of_weigh says:

    P.S. Sorry Metro Atlanta……sorry Georgia……ya’ll all be agreeable and nice, and when you’ve turned into a dried out skeleton of a taxpayer stuck in endless snail-pace congestion, swing by next year, or sometime,,,,and vote on your agreed upon diverse transportation “pre=selections”……now out of my way, I’ve got grain to sell and move, and peanuts, too!Report

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  3. Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.... says:

    “Imagine how much further our regional transportation sales tax dollars would go if the state were to match the local contributions in transit, and if the state were to invest in rail projects that cross over several metro regions, ie: helping pay for commuter trains between Atlanta and Macon.”

    That would be ideal, but the state of Georgia matching local contributions in transit will happen when hell freezes over and pigs sprout wings and fly as there would be riots in the street and a heavy political cost to be paid dearly if that much money marked for roads were suddenly diverted to funding transit. Even the mere suggestion of such a thought by conservative state political leaders would cost them their political careers at this point in time as most of them represent constituencies who perceive mass transit to be an experimental form of transportation designed to force socialism on the American people.Report

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  4. Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.... says:

    “And then there’s that question of funding.”

    “Now here is a dirty little secret. Georgia DOT has been able to invest in transit, sidewalks and bikeways all along.”

    “Every time someone buys a gallon of gas, 7.5 cents is the gas tax. But a driver also pays a 4-cent state sales tax on that purchase. Of that, 3 cents goes into GDOT’s pockets and 1 cent goes into the state’s general fund.”

    “That state sales tax has no constitutional restrictions meaning there is NO reason for the state to sit on the sidelines when it comes to developing a transit system for the Atlanta region.”

    Maria, you’re right, there is no plausible or logical reason for the state to not play a major role in developing a transit system for the Atlanta Region, and for that matter, all of North Georgia.

    But the ACTUAL reasons that the state has been sitting on the sidelines when it comes to transit planning in the Atlanta Region is because, of course, of politics and that state government political leaders and officials, who historically and still do more than often hail from rural backgrounds, don’t understand transit in the least bit.

    Playing an anti-Atlanta political card to what has traditionally been a state that was dominated by rural agricultural interests has been served state political leaders very, very, VERY well for as far back as the State Capitol has been in Atlanta (which is a major reason that rural freight railroad lines receive very heavy funding and subsidies from the state while an urban passenger railroad line like MARTA receives none). So we shouldn’t be shocked that urban issues of any kind have gotten short thrift from a state government historically overwhelmingly dominated exclusively by rural interests.

    Because of the growth of Metro Atlanta and its environs, state government isn’t dominated by South Georgia rural interests anymore as much as it is dominated by North Georgia suburban and exurban interests who still remain somewhat skeptical about transit, but are open to taking a serious look at investing in it if will help them to able to not have to sit in crushing traffic.Report

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  5. Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.... says:

    “Bottom line. Some way, some how, we must find a way to invest in transit once and for all — be it through a “precious” regional sales tax or through direct state funding or preferably both.”

    Maria, direct state funding just simply ain’t happening anytime soon, if ever, in this current political climate dominated by libertarians and conservatives who remain hostile to rail and extoll the virtues of individualistic automobile transportation. Though I am starting to see evidence of state leaders being open to finding out more about rail transportation as House Speaker David Ralston, Governor Deal and other state political leaders have been getting in really good with the up-and-coming rail lobby going on a number of all expense-paid junkets to Europe to “checkout the benefits up-close-and-personal” of rail transportation. If the rail lobby can gain as much, or more, political influence with the state legislature as the very powerful roadbuilding lobby has had for many years, then maybe we may be able to finally move the needle on transit planning and funding.

    Also, something to keep in mind, especially if the regional transportation tax fails to pass, which looks to be the case early on, is that sales taxes don’t have to exclusively be the one and only way to fund transit, which to this point has been a fatal misconception about transit funding.

    There are other ways to fund transit which will bring about less heat and political resistance for our political leaders, ways like utilizing user fees on traffic tickets, parking tickets, DUI citations and fines, advertising revenues and fares increased to a realistic level high enough to actually help fund a significant part of transit operations. Even if the transportation tax does fail and no additional funding from regional taxes and the state were never to come, which is a very likely scenario, if all the those revenue streams were to be fully and competently utilized, there would be more than enough money to fund a regional mutimodal transportation system with extensive reach.Report

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  6. Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.... says:

    “But the Georgia Department of Transportation recently pressured Erik Steavens, its director of intermodal programs and senior rail transportation expert, into resigning from his position — resurfacing questions about the state’s commitment to rail and alternative modes of transportation.

    The state’s commitment to competence and sanity in managing transportation through GDOT has long been questioned as there was also recently a vote of no confidence in GDOT Commissioner Vance Smith who has been facing increased pressure to resign his position as of late, especially since the winter storm fiasco back in January when Smith ran away from news cameras when he thought he was being confronted and being held accountable for the state’s lack of immediate response to the storm. The winter storm isn’t the only reason why Smith is under fire and on the hot seat at GDOT, but it is a major factor in is embattlement.Report

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  7. Skeptic says:

    So will the legislature tackle the MARTA 1-cent issue facing Fulton and DeKalb counties?

    If not, say goodbye to your precious regional transit. Why would a voter in Fulton or DeKalb agree to pay 2 cents in sales tax to MARTA while the rest of the region pays 1 cent?Report

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  8. SWATS Matt says:

    I read the Charlotte Observer piece about crime and their light rail system. My impression is that the city’s current crime problem has much less to do with the existence of transit and more to do with the city’s struggles in effectively policing Uptown.Report

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  9. Rob Augustine says:

    If there’s crime in any area, it should be dealt with. If Charlotte has it around a transit station, fix it. We have it around some MARTA and we need to fix it as well. But if someone thinks for one second that this is a reason not to bulid transit, they are mistaken. The whole of the citizens should do the things that improve their lives, and having transit access will be a requisite for living in the Metro area as we move forward. You cannot support a populace of over 5 Million people with a very limited or non-existent transit system like we have now.

    I like the Charlotte mayor’s description of the “Corridors of Crap.” I think we have an ample supply of these in our region. In fact, we not only have them, but many are now vacant as so many businessess have failed or pulled back lately. As the Mayor indicated our economic development future depends on having vibrant commercial districts, and you cannot maintain our residential neighborhoods without the synergies of viable businesses for residents to utilize. And, as a recent article pointed out about the problems of DeKalb County, it suffers due to the lower level of business properties versus residential compared to Fulton, Gwinnett, Cobb, etc. Our declining neighborhoods should be a warning sign that action is needed. But where are the light rail systems out Memorial Drive or out I-20 to Stonecrest?

    If the present plan goes forward without some viable regional transit for the Metro area with light rail to Cobb, as they’ve been seeking for years, from Arts Center to Kennesaw State, it will never pass. And residents in Fulton and Dekalb aren’t going to pay both a MARTA tax and a regional plan tax as well. That’s not fair and it is doomed to failure.

    Finally, what is this 10 year limit. If we only choose projects that can be built in 10 years we will never get started on a true regional transit system. This is a ridiculous limitation. We’ve got needs here that will extend well beyond a 10 year construction to completion cycle. We will need 50 years probably to get back on track in Metro ATL, as we’ve had nothing on the transit front for the past quarter century. We’ve had a massive failure of leadership for this region and a true breakdown in planning for the mobility we will need as citizens over the next decades. So I would say, while we are far behind, we need to get going and we need a vision for the future — Let us at least begin.Report

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  10. Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.... says:

    “Finally, what is this 10 year limit. If we only choose projects that can be built in 10 years we will never get started on a true regional transit system. This is a ridiculous limitation. We’ve got needs here that will extend well beyond a 10 year construction to completion cycle. We will need 50 years probably to get back on track in Metro ATL, as we’ve had nothing on the transit front for the past quarter century. We’ve had a massive failure of leadership for this region and a true breakdown in planning for the mobility we will need as citizens over the next decades. So I would say, while we are far behind, we need to get going and we need a vision for the future — Let us at least begin.”

    Rob, I take it that you’re not that intimately familiar with the politics of this region and state. Well, if you’re not then Rob, “Welcome To Atlanta!”….

    The 10 year time limit is so that the conservative Republican-dominated State Legislature doesn’t appear to be making a full-on iron-clad commitment to a mode of transportation that many Georgians outside of I-285 are very skeptical and suspicious of. If Republicans were to appear to make a serious commitment to paying for mass transit over the long-term, there may very well be a serious backlash from the small government, anti-tax Tea Party-dominated conservative base of the party in the primaries in 2012. Individual Republicans, even if they may be personally or collectively concerned about traffic issues, can’t appear to in favor of any new taxes, lest they risk being challenged and defeated by an even more hard-line conservative Republican candidate for their office in local and statewide GOP primaries in 2012, which already figures to be a year where angry anti-Obama voters will look to flood the polls looking to angrily take out anything or even anyone remotely liberal.

    Only five months after taking office there is already much talk of a challenge to Governor Nathan Deal from the more conservative smaller government wing of the government wing of the Republican Party.

    Georgia has always been a state where socially conservative politics abounded even when the Democrats reigned supreme from the end of the Civil War until Governor Sonny Perdue’s victory permanently vaulted the Republicans into power for good in 2002, since then the political environment at the state level has become even more anti-tax, small government and conservative, even leaning towards ultra-conservative in many locales.

    It’s because of this increasingly hostile anti-tax, smaller government, ultra-conservative environment that I don’t give the already-flawed transportation tax much of a chance of passing, mainly because it has the word “TAX” in it. There’s even a cynical side of me that thinks that the Republican leadership may have intentionally written a flawed bill so as to see the vote for the tax purposely fail for political expediency in this hostile Tea Party-dominated environment, which underscores the need to creatively come up with other ways to pay for new transportation improvements than proposing very unpopular new taxes in a very hostile and angry anti-tax environment that is very mistrustful of government.

    Significant financial help isn’t forthcoming anytime soon, if ever, from the State of Georgia so we need to approach funding and campaigning for this thing from a different angle. We need to approach transportation funding and planning as if getting help from the state and region, especially in the form of new taxes, is not and will never be an option because if we sit around and wait for any new taxes to be pushed at the state level and approved by voters at the regional level, we will literally be waiting FOREVER.

    We need to approach funding this thing from the angle of using increased fares, user fees, taxes on transit riders only, fees on speeding tickets, fees on parking spaces, fees on parking tickets and advertising revenues because it’s pretty obvious that funding from new taxes are just simply not an option at this point in history in our state and region and may never be.

    We can sit around and whine and moan that it’s not fair and that mass transit is subsidized by the state government in other states and that transit riders shouldn’t have to finance the bulk of the cost of mass transit operations and that the poor won’t be able to ride and that people will not want to ride if we raise fares to a level where fares can help finance the bulk of the operations of a system, blah, blah, blah, etc. It simply does not matter, mass transit is NOT going to be financed by state government in Georgia and we have to have that mindset in everything we do.Report

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  11. Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.... says:

    The recent issues with safety in both Atlanta and Charlotte underscore the need for mass transit systems to be perceived as safe and secure because if a transit system is perceived as unsafe then it simply can’t be as effective in carrying out its mission in that local community. Transit cops have to be highly-visible and highly-vigilant at all times. There just simply cannot be the perception that there is never a cop when you need one.Report

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  12. Greg Streib says:

    Thanks to Maria for this concise presentation of some important transit issues and I also enjoyed the comments here. One element of this discussion that seems murky to me is that there is a big difference between investing in a denser, transit-intensive urban center and regional transit. We need both, but I certainly believe that investing in Atlanta transit is the priority. We are talking about plans that will reshape the state over decades—Atlanta is competing against the great cities of the world today. The failure to grasp this bottom-line fact makes Georgia an anachronism in a rapidly changing world, and this is a tragedy. Second, I am glad to see that crime is on the table and we need to face up to this issue boldly and effectively. In part, this means diffusing it as an emotional appeal. Give roadway deaths the same high profile treatment, please, and throw in the lifestyle and pollution deaths for good measure. Anyone arguing that transit is a threat to health and safety needs to acknowledge the full range of issues. Finally, let’s have a more visible police presence, of course, but we also need an open discussion about their responsibilities, the legal environment, and the enforcement…stretching right down to the courts. Somehow we need to find a happy medium between personal freedom and our collective right to travel the streets of our cities. As things stand now, the lot of the Atlanta pedestrian is a sorry one. The area surrounding Five Points and the scenes on MARTA are the most effective anti-transit messages imaginable, and it places a very heavy burden on transit advocates. The challenges are great, but the price of failure is immense.Report

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  13. Rob Augustine says:

    Thanks for the extended, insightful analysis last democrat. Or should iI call you lights out?

    Greg’s comments are well made as well.

    Clearly neither party has helped to move Atlanta forward over past decades. Both are fully at fault

    We will pay the price if your analysis proves correct. No party can alter economic reality, and Atlanta’s will be bleak if we do not provide comparable transit infrastructure to other cities. We will lose businesses and residents unless we change the scenario of the past 30 or so years. We’ve already lost much and I hate to see it get worse.

    No one will be having any party if your predictions hold true.Report

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  14. Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.... says:

    Greg Streib says:
    June 15, 2011 at 8:53 am

    “As things stand now, the lot of the Atlanta pedestrian is a sorry one.”

    Greg, I don’t know how long you’ve been living in Atlanta, but, believe it or not, things have actually improved for pedustrians quite a bit relative to how they used to be when Atlanta was routinely ranked the worst of the worst amongst cities for pedustrian safety. Metro Atlanta used to routinely be ranked either second-to-last or dead last amongst U.S. cities for pedustrian safety, but thanks to alot of work on the part of pedustrian advocates, Metro Atlanta has seen improvement to the bottom ten. Still an overwhelming amount of work to do make this city safe for pedustrians, but at there is at least some effort being made to protect pedustrians and make drivers aware of pedustrians compared to the past when pedustrian safety didn’t even register as an issue in these parts.

    But on the other hand, up to the time of the Olympics, MARTA used to be one of the most highly-regarded mass transit systems in North America, routinely ranking in the Top-10 amongst North American cities.

    Fast forward to 2011 and MARTA has slipped to being one of the least-regarded mass transit systems in major U.S. and North American cities, routinely being ranked as low as between 90-100 out of 100 North American cities because of the state, region and city’s failure to further invest much more, if any, in transit, or for that matter, transportation, period since the end of the Olympics 15-years ago.

    It almost as if ALL investment in transportation by the state stopped dead in its tracks after the Olympics so transit advocates shouldn’t really feel too terribly bad as automobile lovers haven’t exactly been getting the widespread infrastructure investments they’ve wanting and needing either in the last 15 years, save for the occasional widening or resurfacing of a state-maintained route that was 15-25 years behind schedule.

    Most new investment in roads in the last 15 years have been NOT at the state level, but at the county level where road expansions have been funded through local SPLOST taxes, that like the proposed regional transportation tax in 2012 usually have time limits of either 5 or 10 years at the most so that any proposed taxes won’t be perceived by conservative tax-adverse voters as a permanent tax that they will never be able to get rid of.Report

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  15. Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.... says:

    Rob Augustine says:
    June 15, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    “We will pay the price if your analysis proves correct. No party can alter economic reality, and Atlanta’s will be bleak if we do not provide comparable transit infrastructure to other cities. We will lose businesses and residents unless we change the scenario of the past 30 or so years. We’ve already lost much and I hate to see it get worse.”

    Rob, I wouldn’t necessary say that things are as bleak as they might appear to be. Sure Metro Atlanta has lost out in the competiton to lure a handful of business relocations that were turned-off by the very heavy traffic and the minimal mass transit options, but the number of relocations that we’ve lost out on pale in comparision to the one’s that we’ve picked up, especially from higher tax Midwestern and Northeastern states because of Georgia’s reputation as a low-tax state that is much friendlier to business than many traditionally higher-tax Rustbelt states.

    Overall, the Atlanta Region and Georgia as a whole have alot of things going for it as a transportation and logistics hub, especially with the world’s busiest airport in Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and one of the world’s busiest seaports in the up-and-coming Port of Savannah.

    Something that may also be of cause for celebration for transit advocates is that the passenger rail lobby has been gaining alot of political power and influence in the Georgia Statehouse as of late, a development that was recently reflected when State House Speaker David Ralston and Governors Nathan Deal and Sonny Perdue toured mass transit systems abroad during trips to Europe for knowledge on how to design operate similar systems in Georgia and also when state officials made an offer to Tennessee officials to trade high-speed rail access from Chattanooga to the Atlanta Airport for access to water in the Tennessee River Valley Basin.

    Since picking up on the fact that there is potentially a very substantial market for passenger trains and rail in Georgia, the international rail lobby has slowly, but steadily been gaining power and influence within the Georgia General Assembly and continues to do so as we speak along with very powerful land development and spectulation interests who have gone from planning sprawling future developments based on freeway and road access to planning dense future developments based on possible access to proposed light rail and commuter rail lines. If the rail lobby can gain as much, or more, political influence with the state legislature as the very powerful roadbuilding lobby has had for many years, then maybe we may be able to finally move the needle on transit planning and funding.Report

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  16. Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.... says:

    Another observation is that state officials in Georgia have never really taken the lead at the long-term widescale planning of infrastructure. It has always been apart of the political culture in this state to take a sort of hands-off approach to regional planning an approach that has been exacerbated by the traditional rural South Georgia vs urban Atlanta and North Georgia political and cultural split.

    What we’ve seen in recent years with the state’s failure and refusal to take part in regional transportation planning in the Atlanta Region is the culmination of many years of a hands-off approach in deference to local political machines.

    It’s not just rail and transit that the state refuses to endorse by faiiing to take a lead role in fashioning and funding a long-term widescale plan for the Atlanta Region and North Georgia, but also in road infrastructure and, especially, water infrastructure in the form of the planning, funding and construction of lakes and reservoirs for water supply usage and storage.

    In the mid-to-late 1960’s, when the population of Metro Atlanta was barely over a million people, state officials were warned in a small series of reports and recommendations that the state needed to begin immediate investment in the planning and construction of a series of reservoirs for North Georgia or otherwise the area would be prone to experience severe and chronic water shortages if and when the population of North Georgia were to reach between three and five million people as Lakes Allatoona and Lanier alone likely would not be able to consistently provide enough water for that large of a population of people, especially during periods of extended drought.

    Those reports recommending that the state take a dominant lead in planning and storage for future water supply, were laughed off and brushed aside by state political leaders at the time as being somewhere between fantasy and science fiction, because to them, even though the area was experiencing a lot of growth, there was no possible way in their minds that the population of North Georgia would ever reach three to five million people.

    Fast forward nearly 40 years to a period when the combination of an exceptional drought and a water war with neighboring states Alabama and Florida is seriously threatening to leave North Georgia, a region of close to SIX MILLION people, high-and-dry. In the midst of an exceptional drought that threatened to completely drain and dry out North Georgia’s primary water supply source, that same series of reports recommending state leadership and action on planning water supply infrastructure that was so casually laughed off by state officials as “fiction” just coincidentally happens to be found gathering dust on a shelf in a state government office building.

    Meanwhile, the state of Texas, one of Georgia’s main economic peers and competitors, planned for future growth, establishing the North Texas Muncipal Water District to serve the Dallas-Fort Worth Metro Area and surrounding environs in 1951, amongst other regional water authorities in and around the state and that region.

    Throughout repeated severe dry periods in drought-prone North Texas, the Dallas-Fort Worth area has been a beneficiary of 60 years of state-level leadership in building a series of state and regional-controlled reservoirs for flood control and water storage across a region of close to seven million people while the Atlanta Region and North Georgia continues to be almost solely dependent upon two federally-controlled reservoirs, one of which the metro area is in severe jeopardy of losing nearly all access to come July 2012.

    The hands-off piecemeal approach to infrastructure planning is a firmly-ingrained part of the traditional culture of state politics, through this regional transportation tax that is slated to come to a vote in 2012 may quite possibly be the most comprehensive and far-reaching transportation plan that the state has ever even remotely taken anything close to a lead on, especially when it comes to the urban transportation planning aspect of it.

    Even when Metro Atlanta interstates were widened during the massive “Freeing the Freeways” project in the 1980’s, it was Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and not the state that took the lead in negotiating with the Feds to secure the funds to execute the redesign and reconstruction of the freeway system in addition to just having completed the construction of the Atlanta Airport terminal in the early 1980’s at an airport that Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield had the vision to get off the ground and operational in a state with a state government that has rarely taken a major lead in infrastructure investments in its history, especially in urban and suburban North Georgia, through there was some notable exceptions scattered about.Report

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  17. Rob Augustine says:

    Yes, Last Democrat, our state leadership has been myopic at best and non-existent at worst. You make a key point about our Georgia politics. Instead of leadership and planning from the state, the legislators over many years placed substantial authority in large county governments. These counties have taken over to our detriment, while there has been a total lack of regional entities as you describe, for example, in Texas. In Texas it is clear that the cities operate more strongly than county governments, and hence require a regional planning entity for infrastructure that covers a wide scale such as water, sewer or transit. County governments truly should only operate the court systems, public health, and maybe a couple of limited other items. Instead here in Georgia they’ve controlled everything, even things that should have been run by a regional entity.

    Sadly here in Georgia we’ve ceded all of this power to the large county governments and ended up with the balkanized situation we are in. Had county governments not been given so much power and control, and had the state still exerted regional planning authority, we’d be better off.

    This same scenario plays out even now in our large (too large) county school systems. They exert control over every aspect and the state is left standing in the background. For example, the recent Georgia Supreme Court decision declaring charter school authority to reside with the counties instead of the state. While this decision is no doubt wrong, and we need some different judges, it shows once again that we have let large county governments run things to our collective detriment.Report

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  18. Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.... says:

    Rob Augustine says:
    June 16, 2011 at 9:57 am

    Rob, you hit the nail dead on the head, exactly. It’s like they expected, and in many cases, even wanted and welcomed this level of growth in places like Texas and Florida, and to a slightly lesser extent, North Carolina between 50-60 years ago and planned a little better for it in terms of planning and laying out transportation and water infrastructure (and in the case of North Carolina, EDUCATIONAL infrastructure) starting in the early 1950’s, but in Georgia, despite the warning bell being sounded by a few forward-looking planners just over 40 years ago that North Georgia should expect massive growth, our state leaders still seem to act as if they were caught completely off-guard about levels of growth in 2011 that they were warned about, but ignored, in 1969!

    As bad as the situation has been with the almost total lack of transportation planning at times by the state over the last 40 years, the situation is much worse with the water. Everyone complains that the droughts are increasing in severity, but the droughts are really just as severe as they were before, the only difference is that things alot different when six million people are trying to drink out of the same number of straws in 2011 that only one million people were trying to drink out of in 1961.

    It’s the almost the same logic that can be applied to the roads and transportation planning overall. For all its intents and purposes, GA 400 was the last stretch of new roadway to open in the Atlanta Region in 1993 and the MARTA North Line was the last new stretch of rail line to open in the area roughly about the same time. In other words, there hasn’t been any real meaningful new transportation infrastructure to come online in almost 20 years during a time when the population of the area has nearly doubled from around three million to around six million. With a population of close to six million in North Georgia, we’ve basically got twice the number of motorists trying to drive on roads that we’re meant to handle only little more than a population of three million.Report

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