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Will Georgia’s Next Governor ‘Unclog Atlanta’?

3:22 PM EDT on November 2, 2010

This is the final installment of our series on high-stakes governor's races. We hope you'll be watching along with us tonight as the results come in for the races we've followed in FloridaWisconsin, Ohio, California, Texas, Maryland, Colorado, and Tennessee. Now, we turn to Georgia.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Georgians two weeks ago, “If Georgia wants a rail line and wants to be connected to high-speed intercity rail, you can make it happen.” But he warned that they’ll need leadership from the governor’s office.

Well, yes, they look like identical twins. But the candidates for GA governor have different priorities for transportation. Image: ##
Well, yes, they look like identical twins. But the candidates for GA governor have different priorities for transportation. Image: ##

“Whoever gets elected governor will be getting a phone call from me,'" LaHood said. He wants to know if Georgia’s going to be "in the mix" on high speed rail. "They should be. They’re an important region of the country."

Today, Georgia decides who will be in the governor's mansion to answer LaHood's phone call. It’s a time of transportation innovation in the state. Atlanta was recently awarded a TIGER II grant to build a streetcar line, and the federal government topped that off with $4.1 million for a multistate plan for high speed rail between Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina. But the state of Georgia has many unmet transportation needs, and the two men facing off in today’s election each have their own ideas about how to proceed.

Democrat Roy Barnes declares on his campaign website, “The days of only big road projects are gone.” In a section called “Unclog Atlanta,” he says:

Instead of simply pouring more concrete, we must implement a mass transit plan that addresses Metro Atlanta’s tremendous population growth and unique problems. MARTA is convenient for Atlantans who want to travel short distances within the city, but it is completely unusable for suburban and exurban commuters. An elevated light-rail system running over metro Atlanta’s interstates, rail lines, and existing rights-of-way would move commuters to outlying suburbs more efficiently, unclog our interstates, and reduce our reliance on foreign oil, all while putting Georgians back to work.

Republican Nathan Deal is giving up his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives for a chance to replace Sonny Perdue as governor. In Congress, he voted against federal funding subsidies for Amtrak and an increase in emissions standards.

Barnes and Deal both support the recent passage of a bill allowing jurisdictions to raise the sales tax to help pay for transportation projects, including transit. Lee Biola of the Atlanta-based Citizens for Progressive Transit says the flaw in that new tax law is that it only allows a region to raise the tax for 10 years, while in order to get federal matching funds, you need to show that you have a source of operating funds for at least 20 years from the date the project begins running, meaning you really need about 30 years of revenue.

Neither support a hike in the gas tax, despite the fact that Georgia’s is one of the lowest in the nation and was lowered by 4 cents two years ago. They both favor dedicating all gas tax revenue to transportation – currently, a portion of it goes to the general fund. Currently, the gas tax is for roads and bridges only – not transit.

A big issue for both candidates is the deepening of the Savannah River to accommodate the larger ships that will be coming up from Panama once the canal widening there is finished in 2014.  But they differ on how to get goods upstate from the port. Deal is in favor of a new interstate highway linking Savannah to Augusta and all the way up to Knoxville, Tennessee. Barnes is concerned about the environmental impact on the mountains of North Georgia.

Barnes, who served as governor from 1999 to 2003, pushed new highway construction but also started a new commuter bus service from the suburbs. Since then, he’s been hoping for an expansion of passenger rail.

And he’s got his sights set on not just commuter rail, but high speed. He says both would “encourage growth, tourism and economic opportunity.”

Deal is in favor of rail but doesn’t want to commit state money until the local governments get on board.

The numbers, you ask: what do the numbers say? All recent polls show Deal with a single-digit lead over Barnes, but outside the margin of error.

NOTE: Biola of CfPT said one of their top priorities for today is the passage of a nonbinding ballot referendum in Clayton County. It would show residents’ desire to raise their sales tax to pay for inclusion in the MARTA system. The county lost its bus service earlier this year, and the sales tax increase would pay not only to get the buses running again, but to extend the commuter rail as well. Barnes is in favor of the rail extension.

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