Old poet speaks of our future

John Donne would have found little poetry in the way we shape Georgia.

The 17th Century poet saw the world as a connected place, where your fate is indivisible from the fate of your neighbor. I suspect Donne would be astounded by metro Atlanta, where we have been busily creating distance from our neighbors for years by erecting new city limits everywhere.

Robert Reichert, the mayor of Macon-Bibb, sees the world in much the same way. He’s worried Georgia may be squandering its future by ignoring Donne’s counsel. Earlier this month Reichert called upon Donne to make his point to the unpoetically named Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding. The committee, which includes Georgia business and political leaders, is on a listening tour, hearing the concerns of mayors, county commissioners and other officials.

They are hearing a reasonably stark portrait of a broken down state. In small counties, bridges are too fragile to safely carry the weight of a school bus filled with children. The state faces unexamined demands that will be created by larger projects such as the deepening of the Savannah port. At the same time, they hear of dreams of Georgia as positioned to be the Southeast’s keystone.

All this will inform a policy agenda the committee is developing for the 2015 Legislature. It is becoming more and more clear that the agenda will include a call for – brace yourselves - new revenues. This is a taboo under the Gold Dome, a key reason Georgia ranks near the bottom of the free world in per capita transportation spending.

Nevertheless, Reichert, a former creature of the Legislature, seems hopeful. He used Donne’s words to make the point that those shoddy bridges in rural Georgia are no less your and my problem than the misery incarnate that is the I-75/I-285 junction. We should care about what’s happening in Charlotte and Birmingham because we share their fate.

As he began his presentation, Reichert read from Donne’s “Mediation XVII”:

“No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.”

Reichert admitted that it’s unorthodox to wax thusly when talking about the most prosaic of topics: infrastructure. “It’s thoughtful communication, intended to provoke thoughtful consideration,” he explained to me. “And while it may be unusual to hear in public policy debate, it is altogether fitting and appropriate.”

Like Donne, Reichert believes everything is interconnected. “No region is in isolation,” he said. “I quoted the poem at the beginning of my remarks to set the tone: Planning transportation improvements in isolation is doomed to failure.”

“Intercity and interstate connections need to be planned at the state and federal level, and especially so with passenger rail,” he said. “If we fail to plan at that level, it will have definite ramifications, not just for others, but for us all.”

So long as we are into ancient literature, there’s a Don Quixote feel to Reichert’s bigger vision. He wants to see the state – and Southeast – connected by trains.

He invited Catherine Ross, one of the state’s leading lights on transportation, to expand on the vision of Georgia’s being at the heart of vast Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion, which has the I-85 corridor as its spine and includes Birmingham, Atlanta, Greenville, Spartanburg, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Durham, and Raleigh. The megaregion now has a population of 34 million – a respectable European country - and is projected to grow by 70 percent by 2050. The concept was shaped by studies by Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, where Ross heads the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development.

Viewing things from such a broad perspective, Reichert argued that it is inconceivable to plan for the future without including rail connections in the megaregion – which is known by the comfy acronym PAM.

The mayor doesn’t see this as fantasy. “We haven’t seen congestion yet, and if we don’t prepare for it, we will foul our nest and destroy the quality of life we all love,” he said.

But he’s a realist. “People tend to be most concerned about their immediate environment, but if they can be convinced that their immediate environment is a relative term, and when considered on a national scope, it extends to large geographic regions- in this case the Southeast,” he said. “If you’re a sportsman and want to preserve good duck hunting, you need to be concerned about national flyways and habitat all along the way. People can be convinced of the need to be concerned about places far from their home because of the ultimate impact it has on them in their home.”

And he sees rail as integral and urgent as the need to repair crumbling bridges and roads. If these big transportation problems aren’t fixed, elected officials risk the enmity of voters who will be annoyed at paying more taxes without seeing bigger scale improvements.

He argues for a 1 percent statewide sales tax that would be imposed 8 years. Can’t wait to see how that flies under the Gold Dome.

“Charlotte gets it, and they are steadily working on higher speed passenger rail to Washington,” he said. “What a shame to see us squander the opportunity of passenger rail, as Atlanta could be at the crossing of two major passenger rail routes: Chicago-Miami and Washington-New Orleans. To take advantage of that opportunity would be reminiscent of the smart decision to invest in Hartsfield Airport and become the premier airport of Hartsfield-Jackson. We need leaders now, to secure our future.

Yet, he gets that elected officials can be short-sighted. “They may never ride a passenger train from Atlanta to Savannah, or Macon to Charlotte, but their children probably will, and I know their grandchildren will,” he said.

“Their failure to plan will cause the bell to toll for them.”

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