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.”
For more information, click on: www.georgiarail.org.
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.