When U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood stopped in Atlanta last September, he was asked about Georgia's prospects for getting some of the $8 billion in federal stimulus funds being allocated for a network of high-speed passenger rail lines.
Like other states in the region, Georgia wanted to be part of this important project and applied for $472 million that would pay for building the link between Atlanta and Macon. But LaHood's response to reporters' questions about the federal money was not very encouraging.
"It'll come to Atlanta if Georgia gets its act together," LaHood said. "There has to be a commitment by state government that transit is important."
Unfortunately for Georgia, we are still looking for that commitment from the state's leadership.
We paid the price last week when the announcement of the rail grants was finally made. Florida and North Carolina, which are serious about investing in passenger rail, will get nearly $1.8 billion combined. That money will be spent for infrastructure projects that employ thousands of people.
Georgia will get the piddling amount of $750,000 to conduct yet another study of passenger rail. The only jobs created will be for whichever consultants do the study.
This is bad news for the state, but it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. For a project of this scope and importance, the federal money is going only to states that are serious about investing for future transportation needs.
Georgia has been much less than serious about this issue. We already have $87 million in federal funds that have sat unused for the last 10 years because the state still has not agreed to provide $20 million in matching funds. That money would have paid for the first part of the Atlanta-Macon line, a commuter rail link from downtown Atlanta to Clayton County.
Here's what our leadership thought was more important to the state's future. Gov. Sonny Perdue proposed, and the Legislature approved, $19 million a few years ago to build a bunch of boat docks and a tourist center for the "Go Fish" initiative that was supposed to attract bass fishing tournaments to Georgia.
In his budget for the upcoming fiscal year, Perdue proposed that the state spend $10 million on a College Football Hall of Fame that will relocate to Atlanta, and $9.1 million on a horse park at the National Fairgrounds and Agricenter in Perry.
Passenger rail service? We can't afford any of that. Commuter rail links to Macon and Athens are just concepts in a bureaucrat's report, as is a high-speed rail line from Atlanta to Chattanooga.
To sum it up: our neighboring states are making a major investment to become part of a transportation network that could reshape the future of this region. We're building boat docks and horse parks. We can't even agree on a sales tax to repave a few highways.
This is not a partisan issue - both parties have been asleep at the wheel.
Democratic governors Roy Barnes and Zell Miller also passed up opportunities to get into the rail game. Sam Williams of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce recalls how business leaders tried in vain to sell Miller's transportation commissioner, the late Wayne Shackelford, on the value of upgrading rail service.
"We argued with Wayne Shackelford for years to try to get money for rail," Williams said, but he wouldn't budge.
That indifference to any mode of transportation other than highways has also been a feature of the Republicans who have controlled state government in recent years. Former House Speaker Glenn Richardson was especially contemptuous of rail service, once dismissing it as "19th century technology for a 21st century problem."
"We're the caboose on this train," Williams said. "If we're cut out of this, if the rail line goes down the coast (and not through Atlanta), then shame on us."
North Carolina and Florida are willing to make major investments that should result in benefits down the line for all of their citizens. They're getting big money from the federal government to start putting people to work and make it a reality.
Georgia could have been part of that too, but we have decided not to get on board. The train is leaving the station without us. We're waving goodbye to the future.
(Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at www.gareport.com that covers government and politics in Georgia.)
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