Once-backward Vietnam, a land of rice paddies and thatched huts, is building a 1,000-mile high-speed rail line from Hanoi south to Ho Chi Minh City.
Meanwhile, Georgia can’t muster the will to build an ordinary, 26-mile passenger line from Atlanta to Lovejoy, even though $87 million in federal money was set aside last century to build the project.
That’s because, for most of that decade, Georgia has been drifting aimlessly, without direction or leadership. And even with a wholesale change in statewide elections scheduled for this fall, that doesn’t seem likely to change. Our political leaders seem far more intent on ganging up on some immigrant college kid than in getting this state out of its doldrums.
That’s too bad. Every Georgian is a beneficiary of dreamers and doers who have dared to seize the initiative. Many of those leaders, from Robert Woodruff through Ted Turner and Billy Payne, have been entrepreneurs and leaders from the private sector. But leaders of equal vision and daring have emerged from the public side.
In 1836, Alexander Stephens — who later became vice president of the Confederacy — helped convince legislators to fund the Western and Atlantic Railroad. They had to tax everyone from plantation owners to poor dirt farmers to raise the money, but that state-built railroad paid off handsomely by creating what became Atlanta.
Beginning in the ’20s, Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield drove creation of an airport that is now the busiest on the planet, a public investment that gave this region its identity as a business and aviation center.
The ports in Savannah and Brunswick, also among the busiest in the nation, would not exist without public investment, nor would the jobs they bring. And the investments haven’t been limited to physical infrastructure. Govs. Ellis Arnall in the ’40s and Zell Miller in the ’90s focused the state’s resources on improving education, with measurable impacts on economic development and opportunity in the state.
In each of those examples, elected leaders understood that government is a legitimate and even necessary tool for making the lives of Georgians better. Today’s politicians, in contrast, compete on how vigorously they can reject any notion that government might possibly be of some assistance in building the next Georgia.
It’s still a little early in the process, but the absence of vision or mission among the candidates is striking.
Admittedly, these are difficult times in which to pitch a dream. But they are also the kind of times in which dreams are most necessary.
For example, real estate professionals agree that the auto-based, suburban growth mode that once drove the metro Atlanta economy is now as outdated as a Hummer.
That doesn’t mean that existing communities built along traditional suburban lines will falter, only that new growth will center on more dense, walkable neighborhoods in which rail becomes a viable transportation alternative. Around the country, that revised development model is being driven not by government dictate but by the market and demographics. There’s no serious doubt in the industry about the staying power of that change.
The next Georgia needs to take advantage of that market change or be left standing alone at the train station, so to speak.
This week, the Washington-based Brookings Institution released a study of the cost, impact and feasibility of a passenger rail line linking Atlanta with Macon. According to the study, commissioned by Georgians for Passenger Rail, building a 103-mile line with five stops between Macon and Atlanta would cost $400 million, with operating costs of $25 million.
The study also adds its voice to a chorus singing a familiar song: While we’ve drifted, other regions — Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Denver — have seized the initiative by making transit investments and are ready to benefit as the economy rebounds.
“Not investing in rail transit today would be akin to not investing in the highway system in the 1960s and 1970s,” the study warns.
In an era of tight budgets, $400 million can sound like a lot. Yet states and regions that once looked at Georgia with envy are producing leaders with foresight who are capable of overcoming such challenges.
Here at home, though, even politicians who understand the opportunity that we’re missing are too meek give that knowledge voice.