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Transportation Cooperation: It Was Fun While It Lasted

By   /   August 8, 2012  /   Comments Off

Last Tuesday’s vote on regional transportation will remain the political topic for state politics well into the next session of the General Assembly.  Not only does a long standing problem remain unsolved, but the raw politics exposed within the construct of the referendums, the provincial attitudes exerted by voters, and the base fears of various interest groups of others will take some time to analyze and overcome.

One of the first relationships that appears in trouble has its heart in Atlanta’s urban core but has ripple effects all the way across Georgia to our coast.  Since his election, Governor Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed have maintained a high profile relationship to bring federal dollars to Atlanta while working together to solve state problems well outside of the capitol city’s boundaries.

Reed has been Georgia’s point man with the Obama administration to secure funding for the Port of Savannah, and quite aggressively so.  He has positioned himself as a “regional mayor”, assisting economic development efforts to land new companies for the metro area, not confining himself to the city limits.

In exchange, Reed has had an active partner with many of Georgia’s leaders in attempting to secure funding for projects dear to him and his constituents.  Atlanta’s beltline has been at the top of this list, a project designed to mix transit with intown development around a series of abandoned railroad right of ways.

That beltline project became the whipping post for suburban Republicans who used the project as an example of “their” tax dollars being spent on something they would never use.  They generally were unable or unwilling to discuss how much money Atlanta – whose residents already are paying a 1% sales tax for transit – would be raising from their retail sales, they just generally presumed that an acceptable project list would only include roads that they themselves would drive on.  Any other projects were deemed wasteful – or in the words used to describe the expansion of additional MARTA lines, a bailout.

During the 2010 campaign for Governor, candidate John Oxendine proposed extending GA-400 through East Atlanta, paving over (or tunneling under) some of the inner city’s most vibrant neighborhoods.  It was a proposal launched early in the primary, and the politics of the proposal was clear.  It was designed to appeal to suburban Atlanta Republicans, at the expense of intown Atlanta Democrats.

The proposal was the antithesis of the relationship that has been forged between Deal and Reed.  It pitted suburbanites against urban Atlantans in a demonstration of where the power of a super-majority of Republicans could trump the interests of a relatively small pocket of Democrats who occupy land that could otherwise be used to allow Republicans to speed through the city without stopping.

While the failure of T-SPLOST does not bring us back to an expansion of GA-400 as any reasonable possibility, it does return us to the same reality, and the same fears.  Suburban Republicans will dictate transportation policy for the Atlanta region and to a lesser extent, the state.  In town projects will be avoided where possible.

If there was any doubt on this, Governor Deal’s words the day after the vote should remove any doubt. “…yesterday’s vote slams the door on further expansion of our rail network any time soon. Neither I nor the Legislature has much of an appetite for new investments until there are significant reforms in how MARTA operates.”

MARTA, which receives no funding from the state but is restricted on how it spends its money by the state, quickly resumed its whipping boy status upon T-SPLOST’s colossal failure.  Republicans now understand it is toxic among their base to champion projects that benefit a region but are favored mostly by Democrats.

Which leaves us wondering what the role of Mayor Reed will be in this going forward. His words upon the defeat of T-SPLOST contained much more optimism, discussing the need to continue to press forward.

If there was bitterness, Reed did not show it.  But remaining positive in word and rolling up the sleeves to do someone else’s heavy lifting are not the same thing.  One has to wonder that the next time the Republicans need assistance with the Port Of Savannah, will Reed be available. Or, will he respond that he has some constituents back at home that need more of his attention.

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