Tracks were being laid in front of the Metro Atlanta Chamber this week so Georgians could see an actual light rail car — making a stop in town for a couple of days.
The light rail vehicle, which also can operate as a streetcar, was on its way to Charlotte, N.C. as part of the North Carolina city’s second phase of its public transit system.
The symbolism was eerily ironic. The closest Atlanta was to seeing light rail was a two-day stop for a vehicle headed to our biggest competitor — Charlotte.
Of course Siemens, the German firm that designed and manufactured the light rail car, wanted Atlantans to see what they could have if they got their act together.
Proposals exist. The Atlanta streetcar. The BeltLine. But all those plans are just lines on paper. In Charlotte, permanent rail lines have been built, light rail vehicles have been purchased and transit operations are being expanded.
Pat McCrory, who served as mayor of Charlotte from 1995 to 2009, was in Atlanta this week to participate in a “Sustainable Transportation” program put on by the government of Switzerland (more on that later).
“Every city is going through the same thing,” McCrory told the Georgia audience, mentioning other Southern cities like Nashville. “The (city that) will win this war will be the one that moves the fastest.”
McCrory, a Republican, said public transit received bi-partisan and business support in Charlotte. There was a massive “selling” job to show what Charlotte was “going to look like if we do nothing.”
Because the transit lines were linked to land-use plans, developers were able to see they could benefit from the city’s investment.
McCrory said it’s important that transit is built where it makes economic sense and is part of a transportation network.
“The right is only going to want to build roads. The political left will want to put transit everywhere out of fairness. This is not a fairness issue,” McCrory said. “There needs to be an inter-connected system of sidewalks, bikeways and buses.” Later the mayor said “you can’t do rail alone without the land-use plan.”
McCrory said transit is not a project with a beginning and an end. When Atlanta first built MARTA, it was the envy of the nation. But then, Atlanta stopped investing in transit. But in Charlotte, McCrory said: “We never finish what we started.”
On the same panel as McCrory were several Georgia leaders — Jim Durrett, a MARTA board member who is executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District; former Athens Mayor Doc Eldridge, who is now president of the Athens Chamber of Commerce; and Georgia Sen. Jeff Mullis, who has chaired the transportation committee.
The bottom line — there’s no money in Georgia for transit. There’s not even enough money to support the limited transit systems we currently have. And there’s not the political will among legislators to increase taxes to pay for transit.
“When politicians don’t have the guts to vote for a tax increase, then they let the voters pass a tax increase,” Mullis said.
Even that is on a slow train. Gov. Sonny Perdue has said such a question shouldn’t go before voters until 2012. Remember what McCrory said? The city that builds transit the fastest will win.
Under that scorecard, the United States is behind and Georgia is even farther behind.
In Switzerland, the national policy is to invest in sustainable transportation. Already the Swiss use public transportation for 19 percent of all its trips compared to only 2 percent in the United States. The Swiss traveled an average of 1,307 miles by train in 2007, compared to 1,228 in Japan and 839 in France. In the United States? The average American only traveled 87 miles by train.
The Swiss continue to support investments by rail, and roughly half its transportation budget goes towards public transit.
The Swiss ambassador to the United States, Urs Ziswiler, said there’s a $3 per gallon gas tax that provides revenue for transit. A gallon of gas costs $7.56 in Switzerland, more than twice the cost in the United States. The high cost of gas encourages the use of transit and discourages car and truck travel.
The Swiss currently are building a 35-mile tunnel under the Swiss Alps to connect Zurich to Milan — primarily to shift the movement of freight from trucks to rail. The total project will cost $30.2 billion, and 65 percent of it is going to be paid by a truck tax (a further disincentive to move goods by truck).
According to Swiss officials, the beauty of the truck tax is that it was being paid by trucks traveling from all over Europe. Ambassador Ziswiler said the truck industry strongly opposed the tax, but public support more than made up for that opposition.
Michaela Stockli, an official with SwissRail, showed a slide of all the different modes of rail and public transit that exists in Switzerland — at least a dozen — including tramways, funiculars, light rail, streetcars, trolley buses, high speed rail and so on.
“We have 2 billion passengers a year,” Stockli said of the country with 7.5 million residents. “We do 50 trips per year. Our railway is not only about money. There’s a lot of pride and beauty and emotion.”
She then showed a gorgeous video of trains traveling through the Alps, through cities and throughout beautiful landscapes showing how unobtrusive rail is on the environment.
After that presentation, Georgia State University economist who was moderating a panel discussion, asked those attending the Swiss program on Sustainable Transportation: “Who here has rail envy?”
The crowd applauded.
Ambassador Ziswiler later said Switzerland has had the political will to invest in public transit, and it has been able to pay for it by pricing modes of transportation that it wants to discourage.
Asked about Georgia, Ziswiler said that from what he had heard: “I don’t see the political will.”
So here we are in Atlanta.
The best we can do is have a light rail vehicle on display for two days before it completes its journey to Charlotte, N.C. — a city and a state that enjoys the political will to invest in a sustainable transportation future.
Guess who is winning this competitive war. And guess who’s losing.