Today’s Courier Herald Column:
George H. W. Bush was at one point rated among the most popular presidents ever. Just two years later he was defeated by a relatively unknown Governor of from a small state who was mired in scandal throughout his campaign. Bush was criticized during his campaign for lacking in big picture efforts, and admitted he had problems with “that vision thing”. A reasonable manager and task master, Bush failed to convince the American people that he had a compelling vision of where he wanted to lead the country (among other issues), and failed to win a second term.
Last Tuesday’s elections underscored Georgia’s current need for that vision thing. Governor Perdue spent 8 years as a caretaker governor. He openly expressed to those who questioned the lack of big initiatives that he believed he replaced a very “activist governor” and that the people of Georgia weren’t ready for another. He certainly didn’t violate that philosophy.
Now two years into his successor’s term, Georgia’s overriding philosophy of government can best be described as “Jobs!”. This is little more than a catchphrase too often used to enable legislation designed to benefit the selected few rather than to better the state as a whole.
The transportation sales tax referendums which failed in all but three regions of the state are generally criticized because they tried to put too many people together in regions that don’t have common goals. A contrarian view is that the regions weren’t too large, but that they were too small to allow for that vision thing.
The three regions that passed the new taxes are contiguous, and stretch from Augusta to Macon to Columbus. Had there been a better vision that encompassed the needs of the state, these same people could be building a fall line freeway over the next 10 years instead of improving a disjointed set of local roads.
Likewise, the Atlanta region was bitterly divided over the expansion of transit to serve an area which contains more than half of the state’s population. One of the most popular proposals for transit – a commuter rail concept known as the Brain Train – was not included on the list. Cheaper than the Beltline around Atlanta or the short MARTA rail expansion into the Emory area, the Brain Train would have connected the Atlanta University complex, Georgia Tech, Gwinnett College, and the University of Georgia by using commuter rail over existing rail track. This path covered three regions, however, and was thus not a project eligible for consideration for the T-SPLOST regional lists.
Governor Deal made it very clear the day after the failed vote that the expansion of rail was off the table. Again, this presents more vision problems. After all, the City of Atlanta in partnership with state agencies are rapidly at work on redevelopment of “the gulch”, an area of rail beds in Downtown Atlanta that occupies the area between Underground Atlanta and Phillips Arena/CNN Center.
Plans are moving ahead to build a huge multi-modal terminal to support MARTA, bus service, and commuter rail, along with additional vertical construction for office towers to anchor more workers downtown. With Governor Deal now attempting to appease his suburban Atlanta base, it remains to be seen why this project is needed if there is no coherent, long term plans for additional rail at the city’s urban core. Yet the project has been a pet for interested developers for some time, so it plows ahead. It will, we are told, create “Jobs!”.
Rail must be brought into the conversation when discussing Georgia’s traffic problems and future. Freight is also a factor here. With Savannah’s port nearing expansion, more goods will need to be moved through the state. Trucks or trains are the options. Without expanding rail capacity, more trucks will be on the roads. Without alternate routes like a Fall Line Freeway, those trucks will end up in Atlanta.
Congressman Lynn Westmoreland will be visiting Kia’s manufacturing plant in West Point to highlight the need for rail expansion to grow Georgia’s manufacturing base on Thursday. It’s not comprehensive, but it’s a piece of the vision thing. Additional rail capacity expands options for commuter and passenger rail. More importantly, it also removes freight from our roads by reducing truck traffic.
We need more pieces like this to get the big picture. And we need leadership on this issue to make that happen.
It is time we view transportation holistically from the state level. This is not about local control. This is about how we move people and goods around the state in the most efficient manner possible. If this problem were addressed reasonably and boldly, then we would need a lot less press releases from timid politicians proclaiming “Jobs!”.
And thus ends my column. For an alternative on where Atlanta can move forward with rail, check out Sir Thomas Wheatley’s column from Creative Loafing on how in-town neighborhoods can fund the same transit project lists if separated from the suburbanites and their region of gridlock.