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Opinion: High speed rail lines bypass Georgia

(The following column by Chick Krautler appeared on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution website on February 3, 2010. Chick Krautler is director of the Atlanta Regional Commission.)

ATLANTA — Atlanta is a region with a history of strong leadership that takes bold, forward-thinking steps to improve the lives of its residents and businesses.

One such step was celebrated nationwide on June 30, 1979, when the first east-west line of MARTA opened for business. Metro Atlanta was credited with leading a renaissance in public transportation to address future growth and mobility.

To witness new transit here today, however, you had to visit Centennial Olympic Park last weekend — where you could ogle a shiny, new light rail car that was just passing through Atlanta on its way to Charlotte and the Charlotte Area Transit System.

This light-rail vehicle, the S70 made by Siemens in Alpharetta, holds roughly the same number of passengers as one MARTA train car and could be coupled with other cars or run on its own, like a streetcar.

The car costs more than MARTA’s heavy rail vehicles, but infrastructure construction could be less expensive if rails are embedded in surface streets rather than put underground or overhead.

Unlike Georgia, which provides no financial support to MARTA, North Carolina funds almost 14 percent of operating costs for CATS. That’s a substantial piece of the funding puzzle for a system with only nine miles of rail and that makes one-seventh the number of trips that MARTA carries on a daily basis.

North Carolina’s recent investment in rail (more than $300 million since 1992) led to its recent grant of $545 million from the Obama administration’s $8 billion rail stimulus. That money will help Charlotte connect to Washington via high-speed rail — making that city an even stronger competitor for Atlanta’s businesses and residents.

Georgia, which spends next to nothing on rail, received $750,000 for rail studies from the federal rail stimulus.

What kind of statement does that make about the Atlanta region’s transportation system — that residents could only watch as both congestion relief and financial aid head north to a smaller, competing metropolitan area?

Our lack of new transit does not bode well for the Atlanta region, which added more than 1 million residents during 2000-2009 and expects 3 million more by 2030.

Gov. Sonny Perdue made a good start recently when he released his target list for spending on freight projects. His plan would invest roughly $290 million in road projects (including $112 million in the Atlanta region) and $10 million for the maintenance of 540 miles of state-owned rail lines.

Widening roads and increasing freight rail should help move products through Georgia more quickly and may relieve some congestion on major roadways.

But if our state leaders really want to impact the lives of their constituents and help drive the economic engine of their state, they should take a serious look at new funding for transportation alternatives like light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit.

Residents have expressed strong support for transit. A recent survey showed that 85 percent of voters in metro Atlanta agreed that “Increased investment in public transportation would strengthen metro Atlanta’s economy, create jobs, reduce traffic congestion, air pollution and fuel consumption.”

Other studies show that with expanded transit options and some appropriate changes in land use, we could increase ridership of transit in the region’s five major job centers from the current 15 percent of trips to an astounding 39 percent. That would take another 24 percent of cars off the roads in our most congested areas.

A regional transit plan, called Concept 3, is already in place. This visionary plan is just waiting for one thing — funding. It calls for the expansion of existing rail and bus service, along with the addition of new routes, a seamless fare system and advanced technologies.

How do we fund new transit in the Atlanta region? There are innovative mechanisms like tolls and public-private partnerships that can certainly help. But, in reality, a transportation sales tax is needed.

In another promising move, Gov. Perdue has announced that he wants to divide the state into 12 regions, based on the already-existing regional commission boundaries. His intent is that each region hold a referendum in the 2012 elections on a 1-cent sales tax to fund local transportation projects.

Remember that Georgians pay less per capita for transportation than residents of all but one state.

A new, 1-cent sales tax would cost each resident approximately $215 each year, or $17.92 per month. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to what we spend sitting in traffic congestion. By using all the funding methods at our disposal, including a small tax, the region can begin to build the infrastructure it needs.

The alternative is not appealing. If jobs start leaving the Atlanta region because of continued congestion and poor air quality, the entire state will suffer. Metro Atlanta represents approximately half of Georgia’s population and about 60 percent of its economy. The state would lose jobs, tax revenues and seats in Congress.

We need to get moving on transit in metro Atlanta, or our region and state will not have the mobility options of our Southeast neighbors, much less those worthy of a great, international metro region.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

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