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.