Grassroot initiatives for rail and transit provide hope that Georgia is not a lost cause

Just when I’m ready to give up on Georgia, something gives me hope.

In this case, it’s two budding initiatives aimed at making the case for passenger rail travel and public transit throughout our state.

Of course, just to keep it real, if our state leaders were more enlightened about the need to invest and develop in rail and public transit, these organizations probably wouldn’t be necessary.

But here we are — a state that continues to lose ground when it comes to rail and transit.

Fortunately, there’s a large cadre of Georgia business and civic leaders who are not satisfied with the status quo. They have a vision that Georgia can regain its reputation as a leader in transportation.

The first is the organization — Georgians for Passenger Rail. The group has been in development for about a year, and it is chaired by John Izard, executive director of the Cushman & Wakefield of Georgia real estate firm and former chairman of the Georgia Conservancy.

The second is the Transit Advocacy Campaign, an initiative being undertaken by the Livable Communities Coalition to promote support of public transit operations throughout the state.

The vision for Georgians for Passenger Rail (GPR) is to “reconnect Georgia’s communities through passenger rail to achieve new economic opportunities, enhanced quality of life and a better environment.”

GPR has hired an executive director, Gordon Kenna, who has been working on environmental and land use issues for years.

Izard said that after extensive study, the group has decided to focus on the proposed rail line between Atlanta and Macon with the first phase connecting Georgia’s capital city with Griffin. That line already has received $87 million in federal support, and Norfolk-Southern is a willing seller of that line.

GPR has contracted with a team of national and local experts including the Brookings Institution, HDR Engineering, Robert Charles Lesser & Co. and the Bleakley Advisory Group to develop an economic impact analysis of the Macon to Atlanta line.

Izard said that representatives from the Georgia Department of Transportation, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, the governor’s office and the Andrew Young School of Public Policy at Georgia State University have been involved with the study.

The economic analysis, which is expected to be completed by the end of February, will examine the construction costs, job creation and land value increases related to rail investment. It also will study the various options for operational and maintenance support for the rail service, which is critical to getting more federal support for the project.

What is most impressive about GPR is the team of business and civic leaders who have agreed to serve on its “working board.”

“We want to get trains rolling in Georgia,” Izard said. “From this moment forward, we need to put together a sensible transportation plan for Georgia. And we want rail to be a cornerstone of the transportation plan.”

Izard said there’s another important by-product of developing rail service that connects Georgia’s top cities.

“There’s probably no other single topic to bring this state together than passenger rail,” Izard said. “We are a passionate group, and we have a lot of staying power.”

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Another group that is just as passionate is the Livable Communities Coalition’s Transit Advocacy Campaign.

Ray Christman, LCC’s executive director, introduced the campaign at its first working meeting Jan. 26.

Christman said the coalition has received a grant from the SmartGrowth American to develop “a plan for a transit funding campaign for Georgia.” Georgia is one of eight states nationwide that SmartGrowth American has targeted to generate a grassroots campaign to build support for dedicated transit funding.

The Georgia group is planning to submit a plan for a second phase of funding to launch a multi-year campaign to create constituencies for transit.

“Our goal is to create a regional funding source for transit, making sure that legislation gets funding, that there’s flexible funding for MARTA and doing away with the 50/50 rule,” Christman said. “We also need a dedicated funding source for transit over and above whatever regional sales tax.”

Again, just like the Georgians for Passenger Rail, Christman said that state and local governments need to demonstrate a willingness to provide financial support for transit before it can hope to win federal transportation dollars.

That point hit home this past week when Georgia was virtually frozen out of federal high-speed rail funding — seeing billions of dollars go to its competitor states of Florida and North Carolina. It’s clear this administration is rewarding states that are willing to invest in rail and transit.

Christman said trends favor the development of transit. There’s a “remarkable comeback” in urban America, there’s more national interest in transit and public polls show widespread support for alternative modes of transportation in major urban areas, including metro Atlanta.

“We are entering this fray at an exciting moment,” Christman said.

So while I get discouraged at the lack of progress in Georgia when it comes to public transit and passenger rail, it’s comforting to discover a whole new wave of leaders who bring energy, enthusiasm and passion to the cause.

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.

6 replies
  1. JM says:

    With all due respect to the exceptional and needed efforts of Mr. Izard and others, I refer you to this:

    grass-roots –adjective: of, pertaining to, or involving the common people, esp. as contrasted with or separable from an elite: a grass-roots movement for nuclear disarmament.

    I don’t think their wonderful efforts exactly qualify as “grassroots”.

    Therefore… I would refer your readers to this link and the Citizens for Progressive Transit….

  2. Mason Hicks says:

    Salut, Maria.
    I really hope that the leadership of Georgians for Passenger Rail will take a close look at the marketing efforts made by the other groups that were successful in luring the High Speed Rail funds just announced by the Obama Administration at the end of last week. I would especially encourage them to consider the extensive work done by the California High Speed Rail Authority:( I encourage everyone reading this to visit this site and consider the effort it took to put it together. The architectural and infrastructure design and modeling work is quite impressive. I would suggest if GPR should elect to try to produce a similar work, and I hope that they do, that they enlist the help of Georgia Tech. The California website demonstrates the scale of the marketing effort weneed to sell this to the citizens of Georgia. If only we had a state government that had the vision as so that we would see “.gov” at the end of site devoted to selling the public on passenger rail in Georgia.
    I always enjoy reading your column.Report

  3. Mason Hicks says:

    As I was in the process of writing my comment, JM posted his piece on the notion that these organizations do not constitute grass roots effort. He (with apologies for the gender assumption..)points out Citizens for Progressive Transit. As a recent Board Member of CfPT I appreciate his reference. While I do agree with him on the premise that GPR would really not qualify as a grassroots effort his reference points out the success that the grassroots has had. Now, while the grassroots continue to do there vital work, it is time for the effort to move beyond the scope of what the groups like Citizens for Progressive Transit and Georgia Association of Railroad Passengers have been able to accomplish with
    their limited resources. One could say that the forming of GPR is due in part to the work of CfPT. I should also point out that among the listed Board Members of Georgians for Passenger Rail is Lee Biola, the President of Citizens for Progressive Transit. I for one, am proud to have him represent efforts of the grassroots citizenry.

    Thank you.Report

  4. TarHeelBred bleeds TarHeelBlue says:

    Hey Marta, don’t get discouraged on the lack of progress towards infrastructure funding and investment in Georgia (not just RAIL, but also roads, schools, water, etc…). I take the view that the state is in a period of pronounced transition from a somewhat isolated sparcely populated provincial backwoods locale centered on agriculture to a much more international, heavily populated urban area. Georgia’s population has probably more than doubled over the last 40 years or so and Atlanta has gone from a much smaller mid-sized city of not even one million people that was confined to only two counties to a sprawling international city of about six million, the tentacles of which now spread out over nearly 30-plus counties in about that same time with five core urban counties that were that were considered to be far-flung exurban and rural areas not that long ago (example: now ultra-diverse super suburb Gwinnett County was basically a semi-rural, almost all-white bedroom community up until about the late 1980’s, now its one of the most urban communities on the Eastern Seaboard mentioned in the same breath as Fairfax County, Virginia and Nassau County, New York).

    I wouldn’t expect the area to be able to easily make the transition from a viewpoint of that not too disimilar to Jackson, Mississippi, Little Rock, Arkansas or a Birmingham, Alabama to that of a Paris, London or even a Los Angeles overnight. Great world cities often go through growth issues centered around transportation, growth and culural transition (not to mention education and government structure) and Atlanta is merely going through the same growth and maturation process that New York, Los Angeles and Chicago once went through in one form or another. A process that sometimes goes in fits and starts can be affected by outside events and trends (such as ECONOMIC DOWNTURNS, etc.).

    Don’t throw your hands up, put your head down and walk away in disgust, hang-in-there and keep fighting the good fight, but don’t hesitate to look for and come up with creative new ways to fight it. Rail-transit advocates always “rail” against (no pun intended) the state’s leadership for not investing enough in rail transportation but take one look at all of the concentrated roadbuilding, in addition to the substantial investments in rail, that going on in North Carolina around the cities of Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh and all of the toll-roads that criss-cross what seems to be the entire state of Florida and it becomes increasingly clear that Georgia is lacking is its transportation investments across the board from roads to rail and even boat. I think that Georgia will eventually have no choice but to make substantial investments in transportation of all modes from heavy-rail to light-rail to high-speed passenger rail to high-speed freight rail (especially important to connect Atlanta with the international Trans-Atlantic seaport at Savannah) to tolled-lanes to tollroads because of the intense competition from next-door neighbors Florida and North Carolina because this isn’t just a little regional and national money that were talking about here, this is international money and commerce in three highly-populated states that front major Trans-Atlatic markets. In other words, real money.Report


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