Washington D.C. is watching as Georgia continues to lag behind on transit and rail

If it weren’t so sad, it would be funny.

Georgia is being ridiculed in Washington for failing to move forward with transit and rail. In fact, Georgia is moving in reverse.

How else can one interpret the reorganization of the Georgia Department of Transportation, being proposed by Commissioner Vance Smith, that will downgrade its “Intermodal” Division (which includes transit) into a program under the Engineering Division.

It was only a year ago when GDOT created the Intermodal Division as a way to demonstrate its commitment to transit. But that commitment appears to have been short-lived.

Next, we’ve got State Rep. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody) proposing a state takeover of MARTA, the largest transit agency in the Southeast, and putting it under the control of GDOT.

Remember the state of Georgia loves having control and influence without having to pay for it.

The state provides virtually no regular operating support for MARTA, yet it has multiple state representatives on its board. The state gives MARTA no money, but yet it has an oversight committee called MARTOC led by State Rep. Jill Chambers who scrutinizes every move that MARTA makes.

Next, Clayton County has decided to eliminate its C-Tran bus system (which is operated by MARTA) next spring because of lack of funds.

Again, the state is missing in action. An enlightened state government with a strong dedication to transit would find a way to prevent that from happening. After all, Clayton is one of the poorest counties in the metro area and many of its residents have no other transportation options.

These developments are totally out of step with the policy of the Obama administration, which is encouraging alternative, more environmentally-friendly modes of transportation.

Just last month, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood came to Atlanta to deliver the message for transit in person. Get your act together , he told Georgia officials.

State Sen. Doug Stoner (D-Cobb) has just returned from spending four days in Washington, D.C., where he met with officials from the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Transit Administration.

“They were already aware that we were demoting the Intermodal Division,” Stoner said. “They said, ‘Obviously Secretary LaHood’s message did not get through.’”

Stoner’s contacts in Washington, D.C. even jokingly asked him if there were anything more Georgia could do to hurt its ability to get federal transportation dollars. (Don’t tempt them).

“We are going backwards, not forwards,” Stoner said. “The folks in Washington are paying attention to what we’re doing and what we’re not doing.”

Emory McClinton, who represents the Atlanta area on GDOT’s board and has been a longtime advocate for transit and rail, said it seems as though Georgia has not faced up to the new reality.

“We have been told by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation that our house is not in order, and we just seem to be ignoring all of this,” McClinton said.

To McClinton, the latest proposal just doesn’t make sense.

“The board just passed the effort to get the Intermodal Division elevate a year ago,” he said. “We have a top-notched person — Erik Steavens — over there to head up that division.”

Transit advocates have expressed concern that Steavens may leave the department if the proposal to demote the state’s intermodal initiatives goes forward.

The GDOT board has not yet been presented the new reorganization plan, McClinton said, and he is doing what he can to make sure it is not approved by the board.

GDOT officials have said they have no choice. When the state legislature passed Gov. Sonny Perdue’s plan to reorganize GDOT (Senate Bill 200), it did not specifically list Intermodal as a separate division.

But Stoner is not buying that argument.

“The way that I read the bill, there is no legal reason why Intermodal can’t be its own division,” Stoner said. And if state attorneys disagree, GDOT could go to the legislature to get a change in the law.

So far, no one has approached Stoner to try to get clarification on that part of the bill. And Stoner said the governor’s office also has been silent.

“There’s no reason why the governor couldn’t step up tomorrow and say that Intermodal should be its own division,” Stoner said. “If there needed to be a legal fix, then he could encourage the legislature to fix it.”

By the way, transit advocates have listed 12 specific items in the proposed GDOT reorganization that do not mesh with the language in SB 200.

So the only explanation is that GDOT’s staff, for whatever reason known only to them, just don’t believe in intermodal transportation.

Objectively, Georgia has a need to strengthen its intermodal efforts. The state is sitting on $87 million of federal funds that would build a commuter rail line between Griffin/Lovejoy and Atlanta. The state already has been told that those dollars likely will go away if it doesn’t move forward on the intercity rail project.

Georgia also is trying to be a “Johnny-come-lately” in the high speed rail sweepstakes.

The Obama administration has made high-speed-rail development a national priority. Again, Georgia did not have a well-developed high-speed-rail plan in place, but Steavens and others worked hard to put a proposal in place that would develop a high-speed-rail line from Charlotte to Atlanta to Birmingham.

Also, last month, Gov. Perdue and his fellow governors in Tennessee and Kentucky co-signed a letter to Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary LaHood of their interest to get planning dollars to study the feasibility of a new high-speed-rail corridor from Louisville, Kentucky via Nashville and Chattanooga on to Atlanta.

“Please be assured that this collaborative effort has the full commitment of total support of each of our respective state governments, as well as other important stakeholders within this corridor,” stated the letter signed by Kentucky Gov. Steven Beshear, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen and our own Perdue.

But Stoner said Georgia needs more than words to show Washington, D.C. its commitment to transit and rail.

“Right now, it’s all negative,” Stoner said. “We were told: ‘Your actions speak louder than words. You say you support transit, but in reality you are demoting intermodal.”

How could the state turn this around?

It could re-commit itself to having a strong Intermodal Division.

It could come up with some bridge plan to save C-Tran bus service in Clayton.

It could become a major investor in MARTA (without demanding control) to make sure the state’s largest transit agency doesn’t have to severely cut service next year.

It could remove all roadblocks on the Griffin-Atlanta commuter rail project.

State leaders could get over their petty politics and allow residents in the Atlanta region vote on a one-cent sales tax for transit.

And the state could take a page from North Carolina and create a credible statewide rail plan that includes high-speed rail.

But the way things are going, there’s little reason for hope.

As I said, if it weren’t so sad, it would be funny.

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.

8 replies
  1. Steve Vogel says:

    North Carolina has over 50 people in their NCDOT Rail Division and spends nearly $30M a year of their money for rail. And we think we’re going to compete with them for Federal $$?Report

    Reply
  2. juanita driggs says:

    Bottom line:
    If the upcomong General Assembly doesn’t constructively address these common sense issues, Georgia will suffer irreparable damage for a generation or longer.Report

    Reply
  3. Dick Hodges says:

    More great reporting and commentary by Maria Saporta of an issue in which many of Georgia’s so-called “leaders” continue to demonstrate ignorance, lack of vision and conduct bordering on “disgraceful.” We can be grateful for the few in positions of responsibility and influence who “get it” in terms of bringing our state into the 21st century in regard to transportation.Report

    Reply
  4. ACS says:

    How could anyone in their right mind think that intermodal would turn itself around when it’s led by Frank Harscher, er, I mean Erik Steavens? This crook, oh, yeah, not him; I mean Mr. Steavens doesn’t have the experience to run such a program. Its no wonder the legislature saw no point in keeping it a division.

    Unfortunately this is the way things have been run. All of transportation has gone into the pot under this Governor. It pains me to say it, but perhaps Barnes is the answer.Report

    Reply
  5. Winkasdad29 says:

    North Carolina & Virginia are leaving Georgia in the dust when it comes to rail service. Virginia has just begun regional service between Lynchburg and Washington, and next month begins hourly morning service to Washington from Richmond. North Carolina is adding another Raleigh – Charlotte run early 2010. Both states are working on High Speed Rail.Report

    Reply
  6. Walter Knight says:

    What we are seeing, what we will witness after the 2010 legislative session accomplishes nothing once more, is the beginning of the demise of Atlanta as a Transportation and Commerce hub. What convention would choose Atlanta with no Mass-Transit? And High Speed Rail? Likely it will just bypass the area.
    Look to Charlotte, Houston, Virginia. My bet is Houston. They are spending Billions of dollars to expand their Mass-Transit system. We the citizens of Metro Atlanta are not the only ones watching this intently. Georgia stands to lose, and lose big in the coming century.
    Personally, I am already thinking of re-locating to a city with a mass-transit system and forward thinking leadership. My family deserves better than what awaits them here.
    This whole situation smacks of social/racial repercussion, more akin to the Georgia under Talmadge, or at the time of the Leo Frank trial. After all, Stone Mountain wasn’t always known for being a “fun park”.Report

    Reply

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