Ray LaHood, the U.S. secretary of transportation, was asked Monday whether high-speed rail would ever come to Atlanta.
“It’ll come to Atlanta if Georgia gets its act together,” LaHood said, using words that came across more blunt in person than they do on the page.
In a later interview, LaHood revised and extended that remark, suggesting that the state has yet to get its act together in other ways as well.
“I think that’s true of transit too,” he said. “There has to be a commitment by state government that transit is important,” implying that in Georgia it isn’t.
According to LaHood, he took that same message into a 40-minute private meeting with Gov. Sonny Perdue Monday.
LaHood is a former Republican congressman, serving 14 years in the U.S. House until he was appointed by President Obama to lead the Department of Transportation. The change in administrations has come at a time when the country is already being forced to rethink both its high consumption of energy and a housing industry that was founded largely on suburban and exurban expansion.
Those changes are also having an effect on debate in Congress, which has begun to draft a new national transportation strategy. That strategy is expected to contain a much stronger commitment to transit and rail and a recognition that to maximize efficiency, transportation investments must be linked to land use.
In fact it’s striking, listening to LaHood and others debating transportation strategy at the national level, just how out of sync Georgia’s leadership has become on such issues.
While LaHood talked of the role of well-planned transportation projects in “creating neighborhoods that people want to live in and where businesses want to locate in,” our leading Republican candidate for governor talks of using transportation to destroy such neighborhoods in east Atlanta.
While Georgia transportation officials propose putting expensive tolls on existing interstate lanes, LaHood questions the fairness of asking taxpayers to pay again for infrastructure that they’ve already paid for once.
And while Georgia lawmakers balk at any step that might shift taxing and spending power from state officials to metropolitan areas, LaHood and others discuss changes that would allow federal transportation money to flow directly to metropolitan planning districts, such as the Atlanta Regional Commission, bypassing state transportation departments.
In his comments, LaHood tried hard not to criticize Georgia policy makers directly. “I’m not going to pretend to tell Georgia what to do,” he said repeatedly.
But rather than criticize the lack of planning and support for high-speed rail in Georgia, he offered examples of regions elsewhere that “get it.”
“The Northeast (high-speed rail) corridor has its act together,” LaHood said. “The Midwest corridor has its act together. The governors there have set aside their own egos and their own ambitions” to work together on bringing high-speed rail to those regions.
LaHood made no mention of the stark contrast to the Southeast, where our governors are too busy posturing to discuss resolution of the ongoing water wars, let alone high-speed rail.
However, he did note that in his travels around the country, he’s been struck by how often the pressure to change course and do things differently has been generated by the public rather than by elected leaders.
Every region, every state has to decide which approach best suits its needs, he said. Some communities will make a commitment and investment to passenger rail and high-speed rail, while others will not.
“If the people of Atlanta think it’s OK to sit in traffic for an hour and a half on the way to a doctor’s appointment, so be it,” LaHood said.