Georgia Governor Comes Around on Commuter Rail

Display of Georgia progress at the Welcome Center on I-85, near the South Carolina border

Big news out of Georgia. Governor Sonny Perdue, who in the past would have been about as likely to advocate for transit as to take his iced tea without sugar, is suddenly interested in commuter rail links between Atlanta and the ‘burbs. Very interested, it seems. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports:

Until now, no amount of begging or pleading seemed to get Gov. Perdue’s attention, much less his leadership.

Yet, last Thursday, there was the governor holding a news conference
with all the transportation players in his office, speaking words that
regional and state leaders have wanted to hear throughout his

“Let’s move out aggressively,” Perdue said. “Once I’ve made up my mind, I’m usually impatient.”

How out of it was Perdue? This is the same man who, when Hurricane Katrina briefly interrupted fuel supplies in 2005, leading panicked drivers to line up at convenience store pumps all over the state, shut down the public schools for two days in order to save gas.

Until now, the solution to congestion in Georgia has been pavement, pavement and — yes, more pavement please. But $4.00-per-gallon gas appears to have finally changed that. In January, according to the AJC, Georgia Department of Transportation officials checked out (for the first time?) rail facilities in New York, Chicago and Boston, leading one board member to remark to another: "We are 100 years behind." And they visited cities more akin to Atlanta, like Charlotte, NC, and Denver, CO, where rail has taken off. Perdue was also reportedly convinced by a friend, Congressman David Scott, that passing up a $90 million rail funding pledge from the feds would be bad form and could jeopardize future grants.

“When he left my office, he told me, ‘David, I’m going to see what
we can do as a result of our conversation,’ ” Scott said. “He left with
a very good understanding of the issue.”

Maybe that was the moment Perdue decided he would finally take action to support commuter rail and more transit.

Maybe Perdue finally understood the true benefits.

He said at his news conference he was particularly impressed when he
saw a graphic showing that one bus could remove 57 cars from our roads
(those numbers are much higher for rail).

Maybe, as DOT board member Robert Brown said, it was a just confluence of events that came together “at the right time.”

The proof will be in the peach pudding, but as a former Georgia resident I can’t begin to convey what a shock it is just to see this conversation happening. With Perdue on board, the time may have finally arrived for one of the most auto-addicted populations in the country to take to the rails. That would be big news for all of us.

Photo: Brad Aaron

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Georgia Department of Transportation officials checked out (for the first time?) rail facilities in New York, Chicago and Boston, leading one board member to remark to another: “We are 100 years behind.”)

    Given when those systems were built, that puts them at 1808!

  • Here’s a fun fact about Gov. Perdue’s 2005 fuel saving plan mentioned above: High school classes were cancelled, but high school football games went on as scheduled!

  • I’ve said before, there is a change happening across the country about rail and transit and as things usually happen — it starts at the state level and will be a decade before you see any leadership in Washington on this. It’s the way our country works.

  • Former Atlantan

    Before you all get too uppity, remember that New York pretty much pioneered automobile culture, from highways to automobile fatalities. Now that the southern states, which followed our lead on the automobile culture, are finally coming around to the sensible transit side, we should be applauding and welcoming a new ally, not going right for the knee-jerk judgment on past mistakes.

    Yeah, transportation policy in Georgia has sucked for a long time, but are we really that much better? Bus cameras and congestion pricing both got shot down. The transit we do have is facing a mountain of debt, while transit leaders are giving themselves raises and hanging on to frivolous perks. We have a great transit system because the leaders 100 years ago built a great system, and the leaders 30 years ago decided it was worth saving. The current leaders and most in between have mainly rested on their laurels and maintained the status quo.

    Atlanta is pioneering new techniques to get transit projects funded. Take a look at the Beltline, which is funded through tax-increment financing to build a transit line, a greenway, and a ring of park around the downtown area.

  • Atlanta got the booby prize in James Howard Kunstler’s The City in Mind. My sister and her husband just moved there, so I wish them well in constructing their transit future.

    We in NYC have nothing to be smug about. We haven’t completed a new subway route since the 1930s. Robert Moses turned huge swaths of New York into a pedestrian-hostile environment. The defeat of congestion pricing opened a gaping wound in the MTA capital plan. We can’t even equip our buses with cameras without the say-so of some jerk from Rochester.

    Someday, living a walkable life in a transit-rich environment may mean moving out of New York. If Larry is right about even half of the things he says, this city will be a dysfunctional backwater in a few more decades.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Someday, living a walkable life in a transit-rich environment may mean moving out of New York. If Larry is right about even half of the things he says, this city will be a dysfunctional backwater in a few more decades.)

    You’ve got to be careful where you move to, however, due to some of the same issues.

    My latest thought is for all the young people, working people and entreprenuerial companies to form a union. After Ohio and Michigan go bankrupt, the union would negotiate directly with the local feudal lords in those states and the cities of Detroit and Cleveland, Wayne and Cuyahoga counties.

    The deal is they’ll move there only if constitutional provisions are in place assuring that only 5% of their tax dollars, fees and fares would to go to past debts, pensions and retiree health care, with the rest going to actual public services, benefits and the infrastructure and other common amenities improved (rather than degraded). Might give my kids a place to move to someday. But they’d have to wait until after the bankruptcy. Those places might get there before Albany actually finishes us off.

  • “Once I’ve made up my mind, I’m usually impatient.”

    Not the best attitude for building public transportation infrastructure, actually! But it’s better than dismissal, as long as it doesn’t lead to some optimistically planned project that fails and disproves (so to speak) the concept of public transit for another generation of Georgians.

    There is, astonishingly, active railroad track from Atlanta to Gainesville that carries one Amtrak train each way daily; I’m not sure of its route but it must pass through a some tasty nuggets of suburbia (there is not much else between those places). If there is a way to make use of it at least in rush hours they could get some commuter rail running quickly without tempting boondoggledom. At the same time, Atlanta’s Marta system goes rather long distances for a “subway” (in keeping with the sprawled city); thought should be put into how best to integrate. Slow and steady, Sonny.

  • You must be talking about the Crescent, Doc. Runs between NYC and New Orleans.

    Good points all, Former Atlantan. I myself am impressed with these developments — particularly in light of past mistakes.

  • “You must be talking about the Crescent, Doc. Runs between NYC and New Orleans.”

    Amtrak and their folksy names. I know it goes up from there; I have been trying to convince my parents to take “the crescent” for the past few years, but they still think of riding any train as a bold adventure likely to involve sleeping in stations and fighting off gypsies. Subjecting oneself to airport security, airplane seats, and airline “weather” delays, on the other hand, is a perfectly comfortable, predictable, and most importantly normal way to travel.

    What’s always struck me about that train line is that it doesn’t follow I-85, but I guess that’s because it predates the interstate. Just found it on google maps and in my remotely biased opinion it would be a great place to start Georgia commuter rail. (Never mind that freight companies are probably using it as a very long warehouse.)

  • I have to say, Doc, that the Gainesville station can be a little scary. No attendants, on the edge of downtown, in an industrial area that clears out after dark (the train bound for NYC picks up at around 8:30 p.m.).

    Still preferable to most airports or Interstates, for my money.

    I’m trying to get my parents to take the Crescent (assuming the name comes from “Crescent City”) up from NC, but I’m not counting on it.

    And it just occurred to me that I’ve lived my entire life within 35 miles of that train line. Weird.

  • GR

    Interesting bit of news. I don’t think it really portends anything as far as a cultural shift, though. Atlanta has commuter rail already, and it really re-enforces the disdain of all things smart growth. It is essentially a band-aid that facilitates more sprawl development – the stations that I saw were seas of parking and no sidewalks, with the 1 and 2 story sprawl starting about 1/2 of a mile away… My guess is these new investments will simply feed the same pattern of development, without really preventing car -dependency.

    The Bay Area has a pretty similar system, for the most part.

  • Brad and Doc, the Crescent was around long before Amtrak – and was still operated by the Southern Railway for eight years after the formation of Amtrak.

  • Of course, some of us in Atlanta have a dream of someday having a world class transit system.

  • Rich Wilson

    Another former Atlantian-

    I was shocked at the general lack of any thought to cyclists or pedestrians whatsoever. Some nuggets:

    I had a public transit bus driver tell me I was riding on the wrong side of the road, I was supposed to be facing traffic. (After passed me inches to spare right before cutting in front of me to get into the bus stop cutout)

    At the Cumberland Mall the installed a signalled crosswalk so people could cross from that same bus stop to the mall- on the mall side there was a wall of bushes.

    Lots of places sidewalks would just end.

    Upscale apartment complex set the sprinklers to comletely drench the sidewalk (impassible to pass unless you want to get drenched) to 9am. I told them it was a bad time. The response, “we have to get it done before water restrictions at 10”. So I asked if they could maybe set them for 3am. “I’ll see”. (I didn’t get a chance to find out if they did, I usually walked to work at 8)

    Bellsouth dug a giant pit in the dirt shoulder passing as a sidewalk on Cumberland pkwy, and left it there for 6 months. Forced all pedestrians into the 50mph traffic. I called, and they said it was hard to schedule the digging contractor and the fiber install contractor. I threatened to fill it back in, and they threatened to sue me if I did. I probably should have ‘fallen’ in and sued them.

  • Chris Loos

    “Once I’ve made up my mind, I’m usually impatient.”

    I guess no one told him that building a new transit system takes many years of planning, financing, buying up property, construction, etc. Its great that he’s finally warmed up to the idea, but all that time wasted could have been spent getting this thing off the ground.

  • Just seeing those links, Angus. Fascinating.

  • Cordalie Benoit

    My daughter, whom I visit about three times a year, lives in Atlanta and I did a paper on reducing sprawl, for which Atlanta is the poster child. The issue was, could MARTA do it? Let’s say YES WE CAN!

    Atlanta was founded at a junction of rail-lines, I say bring them back and for heaven sake, put up maps of the neighborhood where the MARTA stops. Like hey, how does it help anyone to see a map of the entire MARTA system when one gets off the train in a new neighborhood?

    So its the criminals you are trying to thort? They can’t read, don’t look at maps and are very unlikely to come into any neighborhood by MARTA. Make it easier for users and triple the number of parking spaces at the stops.

    Unfortunately, I have found the only people walking in Atlanta are too poor to use the MARTA system, let’s trun it around. And yes, every construction site should provide safe temporary sidewalks. Best, from New Haven, CT, a walkable city.



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