ATLANTA — For Georgians living outside booming metro Atlanta, the key to tapping into the economic growth is improved connections to the capital and other regional hubs.
That’s the consensus of mayors from Augusta, Macon and Columbus during a recent panel discussion. To finance the transportation infrastructure that facilitates those connections, the mayors are trying combinations of new funding sources and lobbying for traditional state and federal sources.
“There are regional and local solutions that we are engaged in that allow us to begin to solve these problems on our own. The resources that we’ve expected from the state, that’s shifted,” Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis said.
Residents of Augusta and Columbus voted in 2013 to tax themselves to generate money for transportation-related projects separate from any funding by the state or federal governments. This new money is improving intersections, adding roads and paving extra lanes. A majority of counties surrounding Macon are developing their own regional transportation tax proposal for voters there to consider soon. The broader goal is to go beyond enhanced connections within regions to better connections between regions. Then there will be greater cooperation between regional companies, colleges and other institutions, with all of the regions tying to Atlanta.
Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul shares that vision despite representing a metro Atlanta constituency.
“If these other mayors get something, the ripples will ultimately come and affect all of us,” he said.
Prosperity in one part of the state doesn’t take away from another part, he said, especially with improved connectivity.
Plus, there is a practical argument for why metro Atlanta residents should support resources for connecting Augusta, Macon, Columbus, Savannah and Valdosta to the capital.
“Let me give you the urban side,” Paul said. “If everyone who wants a job has to move to Atlanta, you will never solve transportation problems.”
There isn’t room for enough highway lanes to accommodate that many more residents. But with high-speed passenger rail, workers could commute from those cities or work for companies affiliated with Atlanta firms.
Macon Mayor Robert Reichert has made it a top goal to develop rail service between Atlanta and his city.
“We’ve got to find a better way to connect cities, nodes of population, without getting on roads. We’ve got to find a better way because that’s where the real synergy is,” he said. “That’s where the future is.”
His solution is state legislation that would create local tax-allocation districts that would collect more money as the value of commercial property in them rises because of nearby train stations. That new revenue stream would cover the annual operating subsidies for the passenger rail, he argues.
Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson points to a study her city commissioned showing a passenger train running from Columbus to Atlanta would be economically viable if it runs on electricity rather than diesel fuel.
“Passenger rail is not about selling tickets. It is about connecting resource centers,” she said.
That’s where politics comes in. The patterns of population growth resulted in not only the majority of residents living in metro Atlanta but also the majority of legislators.
“Everything begins and ends in Georgia under the Gold Dome,” said Davis, a legislator until being sworn in last January. “When you look at the policies that are created there and ultimately signed into law by the governor, they are the catalyst for what happens in our local communities and our regions.”
Polls show the most pressing concerns of the voters who elect those metro Atlanta legislators is unsnarling traffic congestion they face daily, not economic development for the rest of the state.
“I don’t think the state (Department of Transportation) has enough money to do economic development,” said Dunwoody Mayor Mike Davis, no relation to the Augusta mayor. “It’s a struggle to keep up with what’s already happening here.”
State leaders have also been reluctant to launch passenger rail because they don’t want to be stuck paying the annual subsidies. That view could change if the cities found their own ways to finance the subsidies.
Then the challenge is getting everyone concerned to buy into the plan.
That’s one reason the Georgia Municipal Association asked the Atlanta Press Club to hold the discussion between mayors during a luncheon last week and why they intend to sponsor similar luncheons with mayors in each of the state’s metropolitan areas.
A model might be the long-term campaign by the Georgia Ports Authority to transform public perceptions about the Port of Savannah.
For generations, Atlantans and people in other parts of the state spoke of it as “Savannah’s port,” arguing that resources going to it benefited only Savannah and robbed other cities of their own share of funding. More than a decade of civic-club speeches, public relations and intense lobbying has shifted attitudes to where inland Georgians feel like they also benefit from investment in the port.