More federal transit money bypasses Georgia

The Federal Transit Administration on Tuesday published a list of 27 transit projects recommended for $1.8 billion in federal funding. Georgia wasn’t on it.

It couldn’t be. Georgia had no proposals up for consideration, FTA spokesman Paul Griffo said.

In contrast to the high-speed rail grants last week, these recommendations would fund development of local transit projects such as new bus and streetcar lines. Those types of projects have usually been in the works for some time and require local investment to win federal funds.

Rail advocates last week blamed Georgia’s loss of high-speed rail money on the state’s past indifference to rail transit.

"If you don’t have operating money, nobody’s going to give you the money you need to build lines," said Lee Biola, president of Citizens for Progressive Transit. "Other states are investing in other ways of traveling [than by car] and they are becoming competitors when it comes to luring businesses and high-tech workers to their states."

Georgia leaders replied that the state’s budget was too tight to spend much money on transit, and that it made no sense to plan for high-speed rail before anyone knew national rail funding was in the works.

"New money for new projects has been tough to come by," said Bert Brantley, a spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue. Brantley said Perdue's proposal for a regional referendum on transportation funding in 2012 might raise the local matching funds necessary to apply for and win federal transit grants.

Georgia's leaders also came under fire after last week's high-speed rail announcement.

The state got a paltry grant because it “doesn’t have its act together. The state Legislature doesn’t want to put money in for high-speed rail,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told The Atlanta Journal Constitution on Wednesday. “Unless a state has its act together, with money and a plan that connects things, you’re not going to get money.”

U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) told the AJC last week that the funding was lost because of "a terrible, terrible lack of leadership down there."

Brantley fired back in an e-mail to WSB-TV that "it's the Democrats that control the White House, the Congress and the agencies making these grants. Too bad they couldn't use their influence to help our case." He said later that Perdue had come out for funding commuter rail just before the economy tanked, making that unworkable.

"We're focused on the next round," he said.

While Georgia was a no-show in this week’s transit announcement, the South was not. The Obama administration recommended giving $40 million to Florida for a segment of central Florida commuter rail, building up to a total of $178.6 million over the life of the project. It recommended $86 million for a light-rail project in Dallas, expecting eventually to total $700 million toward the project.

The recommendations aren’t final, Griffo said, since Congress decides where the money’s spent. However, “Congress often follows the budget recommendations” for this program, he said.

By the time a state wins a major grant, it likely has been in the official pipeline for several years. For example, North Carolina was not recommended for a major grant. However, the Charlotte Area Transit System is moving through that pipeline with a proposal for a new light-rail line. It has received $24 million in federal funding so far, with about $14 million on the way for preliminary engineering, said John Muth, chief development officer at the transit system.

Other cities in the pipeline include Miami, Houston and Austin, Texas.

Georgia, however, has no community on that list.

Staff writer Cynthia Tucker contributed to this article.

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