North Carolina invests, wins rail money; Georgia doesn't

Florida got an even bigger piece of that pie -- $1.25 billion. The Sunshine State may have helped its case by boosting funding for mass transit after U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned that it needed to get its act together to compete for high-speed rail funds.

Georgia got a similar warning but didn't jump to action. It got a $750,000 sliver.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was the first to report Georgia's grants on ajc.com Wednesday.

So soon Florida will start work on a high-speed line from Orlando to Tampa, and North Carolina will get busy upgrading track from Charlotte toward Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, while they're building, Georgia will be studying. The $750,000 will be divided on projects examining the feasibility of three proposed lines: one from Atlanta to Birmingham, another from Atlanta to Chicago, and the third from Macon to Jacksonville.

Atlanta business leaders, warily eyeing the rise of Charlotte and other Southern cities, have dreaded this moment for years.

"It matters very much," said Renay Blumenthal, senior vice president at the Metro Atlanta Chamber, which has advocated for high-speed rail planning for more than a decade. "We have long feared," she said, "that there was going to be a high-speed rail from Washington, D.C., down the southeastern corridor, and we did not want to see that train stop in Charlotte. If it didn’t come down to Atlanta, think about the economic advantage that corridor gives to Charlotte."

Charlotte's line goes through Richmond to Washington. Lines on maps show it also would have come down to Atlanta if it were funded.

Georgia has done little for rail. MARTA, in a financial crisis, remains the only major transit system in the United States that receives no sustained funding from its state government, according to transit officials.

The state's drivers pay a gas tax that can only fund roads and bridges. There is no state tax dedicated to fill the funding gap for passenger rail operations.

Influential state leaders have long been skeptical of the economic benefit of building rail lines, considering the steep upfront costs to build them and the fact that ticket revenues usually pay for a fraction of the cost to run them.

Rail advocates counter that most roads don't pay for themselves, either, and the economic benefits of rail lines are longer-term and broader, leading to economic development around stations.

State Transportation Board member David Doss leads a committee trying to build a high-speed rail line from Atlanta north through Tennessee. He said Georgia's showing was "unfortunate," especially because "that's probably a one-time opportunity."

Doss has also been one of the most outspoken opponents of state funding for commuter rail. Asked Thursday whether his own actions had come home to roost, he stood by his opposition to assisting commuter rail, calling it an old-fashioned "choo-choo."

A spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue, Bert Brantley, noted that Perdue had met with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss Georgia's "enthusiasm" for building high-speed rail, and said that Biden had joked that Perdue wouldn't stop calling him about the program.  However, Brantley said, "high-speed rail is very expensive and we have extensive transportation needs and limited funding." He said the money Georgia won would position it for the future.

One lobbyist said Thursday's announcement hearkened to critical decisions that Atlanta and Birmingham, similar cities decades ago, made on transportation. “I’m afraid this is like Birmingham deciding not to expand its airport back in the 1950s,” giving Atlanta the opportunity to become a different class of city, said Matt Hicks, associate legislative director at the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

Georgia did apply for a major grant from the $8 billion, asking for $472 million to build a complete, passenger-ready line between Atlanta and Macon. One problem: Georgia already has $80 million in federal earmarks for that rail corridor, which it has not spent.

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