Democrats’ Georgia Transit Gambit

Local Democrats show U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg light rail in Atlanta. Sen. Jon Ossoff is at left. At center is Ossoff on the far left and Rep. Nikema Williams.
Local Democrats show U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg light rail in Atlanta. Sen. Jon Ossoff is at left. At center is Ossoff on the far left and Rep. Nikema Williams.

When Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff were on the campaign trail last fall, transit wasn’t much of an issue in a state that’s historically been hostile to it outside of Atlanta’s urban core. But since Georgia’s two new senators took office — giving Democrats the majority — they’ve made it a top priority, testifying in hearings and touring their home state to build support for President Biden’s infrastructure plan.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited Atlanta last Friday, and Ossoff was there to meet him at the airport. The pair rode a MARTA train to the small nearby city of East Point, where they were joined by Warnock before touring a soccer field at the station and a housing development under construction next door.

Ossoff pressed Buttigieg for funding for the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, in particular light rail along the Beltline, a 22-mile loop of abandoned rail lines being converted into walking and biking trails. “Since the mid-1960s, MARTA has been helping folks get around Metro Atlanta, but particularly as the pace of growth of the metro area has risen in the last couple of decades, we’ve chronically underinvested in this vital transit system,” Ossoff said.
Meanwhile, Warnock has pushed for more funding for rural transit, as well as specific local projects like bus rapid transit on I-285 — the freeway encircling Atlanta — and the Clifton Corridor light-rail project to Emory University.

The two senators get most of the national attention, but Democrats also flipped two suburban Atlanta House seats in 2018 and 2020, accounting for half of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s four-vote majority. Rep. Lucy McBath, whose seat once belonged to Newt Gingrich, recently cosponsored bills creating a grant program for greenways and providing more flexibility for BRT projects.

Buttigieg’s answer to their proposals has been to tout Biden’s American Jobs Plan as a way to fund them. That plan may be scaled back though, as news broke while Buttigieg was in Atlanta that Biden would lop $500 billion off the $2.3 trillion price tag in an effort to appease Republicans.

“What I know is that every one of the people I’m talking to from both parties is from somewhere — is from a community like where we are today that is very much in need of major investments, not just the investments that would allow America to stay in 13th place, but actually position us to win the future,” Buttigieg responded. “That’s why you see such ambition and such scale in the president’s plan. But I’ll also mention that the president’s plan is utterly affordable as demonstrated by the fact that it’s fully paid for in the vision he put forward.”

Regardless of whether the White House continues negotiating with the GOP or pulls the trigger on using reconciliation to pass infrastructure with 51 votes, the winners of Georgia’s January runoffs will prove vital. Without them, Mitch McConnell would still be Senate majority leader, and spending on transit or Amtrak would likely be out of the question.

With politics shifting in the South, transit is no longer the third rail in the region it once was. The Georgia legislature, still dominated by rural Republicans, recently voted to fund transit on a statewide level for the first time ever, earmarking $40 million in revenue from a surcharge on Uber and Lyft rides.

“In a state like Georgia, this is a big win for our communities, this is a big win for the environment and for equity,” according to Warnock.

Although suburban Gwinnett County has repeatedly rejected MARTA over the past 50 years, with the most recent referendum failing by just 1,000 out of 400,000 votes, joining the system seems all but inevitable. For decades smaller cities like Columbus and Athens have been lobbying for intercity passenger rail, but have gotten little help from either the state Capitol or their elected officials in Congress. Even tiny Valdosta in South Georgia recently created a transit system.

Nor is renewed enthusiasm for transit limited to Georgia. In Nashville, Mayor John Cooper is pushing another transit referendum just three years after his predecessor’s plan was voted down. Charlotte officials are in the midst of discussing a “transformational” plan that includes hundreds of miles of rail, bus routes, bike lanes and greenways. Jacksonville is considering raising its gas tax to create the massive Emerald Necklace network of trails, among other things.

Changing attitudes toward transit in the South are driven by the same factors that led to the blue shift in Georgia, a state that hadn’t elected a Democratic senator since 2000: College-educated voters are flocking to cities and trending Democrat, and the suburbs are getting more diverse. In a state where segregationist Gov. Lester Maddox crippled MARTA from the start and racists once derided MARTA as “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta,” the aforementioned white-flight suburb of Gwinnett is now majority-minority. If Georgia stays blue and neighboring states eventually follow suit, it would solidify support for transit not only in the South, but nationally, too.

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