By Maria Saporta
A year ago, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told Georgia leaders that they didn’t have their act together.
And LaHood’s perspective helped explain why Georgia couldn’t seem to get any major federal transportation dollars out of the Obama administration.
So LaHood’s comments on Wednesday morning were particularly poignant.
“We are here today because you all have your act together,” LaHood told the coalition of Atlanta business, civic and government leaders as he handed over a gigantic check of $47.6 million for the Atlanta Streetcar project.
“People have come together around a common agenda,” LaHood added. “You are a model for it. I hope that the state will take your lead and also become a model.”
The funding of the streetcar highlights the special relationship that the City of Atlanta has established with the Obama administration, and it points out the disconnect that exists between the state leadership and the federal government.
It’s not just politics — even though politics does play an important role. The urban core of Atlanta is a blue island in a red state. It has developed strong links with the Democratically-controlled Congress, and more importantly, with the Obama administration.
Look at who was present Wednesday morning at the press conference at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site’s outdoor ampitheater across from the Old Ebenezer Baptist Church..
There was U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat; U.S. Rep. David Scott and U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson — both Democrats. Championing the Atlanta bid for the streetcar were Mayor Kasim Reed, and his predecessor, Mayor Shirley Franklin, both Democrats.
All of these elected officials have been hard at work building bridges and relationships with the Obama administration, and they all have reminded the leaders in Washington, D.C. that a large base of their support comes from urban areas.
But it is so much more than raw politics. The reason that Atlanta received the federal streetcar grant is because its transportation policies are in sync with the administration’s.
Under LaHood (a Republican) and Obama, there has been a distinct preference to invest in transit and rail as a way to bring new life to communities.
The administration has worked hard to understand the inter-relationships between transportation, land-use, housing, energy and the environment. There’s a growing understanding in public policy circles that transit helps spur economic development in pedestrian-oriented communities, and that ends up saving energy, improving the environment and contributing to the quality of life.
These are not new concepts among people who study cities, urban development and healthy communities.
But until the Obama administration, there had been a definite bias towards roads and automobiles. When the word transit was mentioned, it almost always was “bus rapid transit,” an approach that is appropriate in some communities. But it’s not one that contributes to compact, urban lifestyle where people are encouraged to use their feet, bikes or transit to get around.
The City of Atlanta gets it. The Connect Atlanta transportation plan is all about connectivity and promoting multiple modes to get around.
But transit has yet to be embraced by leaders in the state of Georgia. As it has been said repeatedly, Georgia hardly ever contributes operating funds for the 120 transit systems across the state. The one exception has been the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s X-press buses, and now those too are facing a significant operating shortfall.
The state has taken years, if not decades, to seriously consider commuter rail. And nearly $100 million in federal dollars could be lost if the state doesn’t advance with a commuter rail line between Atlanta and Griffin.
The message from LaHood couldn’t have been clearer. The City of Atlanta has a vision that coincides with the vision that exists in Washington, D.C. But the same can’t be said for the state.
As a result, Georgia continues to be turned down when applying for federal grants for roads and tollways as other states that have embraced transit and rail have received millions from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
That point really hit home because the Atlanta Streetcar won the largest grant of any that were awarded Wednesday in this round of TIGER funds. In all, about 75 communities ended up receiving a total of nearly $600 million.
What made Atlanta’s grant so attractive?
LaHood said the $47.6 million for a “modern streetcar system” will put “Atlanta in the vanguard of America’s streetcar renaissance.”
During the press conference, LaHood repeated his perception of Atlanta.
“Atlanta has its act together,” LaHood said. “Community leaders has said this is a way to think outside the box. And there’s no better way to do it than a streetcar program. Streetcars are coming back.”
Later he added that streetcars and high speed rail are investments in communities.
LaHood ended his comments with this quote: “This streetcar line will become an economic engine that will create long-lasting jobs.”
Imagine the possibilities if the State of Georgia could also get that message.