Love train

Trolleys, the Belt Line - yes, even MARTA - get some GOP affection

Sen. Tommie Williams lives about 100 miles southeast of Macon - pretty much smack dab in the middle of the nowhere - in Lyons, population 4,169. Besides hailing from the sticks, Williams is a Republican, making him the last person you'd expect to be advocating for mass transit in urban areas.

Yet that's exactly what he's doing. Until recently, legislators - especially Republican ones - from the suburbs and rural areas were anything but proponents of Atlanta-centric transit projects. That sentiment is one of the primary reasons why MARTA has struggled to survive for more than a decade.

But that's about to change, thanks to the rise of Republican lawmakers interested in the success of urban transit.

Williams and fellow Republican Sen. Dan Moody of Alpharetta have teamed up with three staunchly Democratic, local Atlanta senators - Sam Zamarripa, Kasim Reed, and David Adelman - to help launch new city streetcar systems.

The legislation, known as the "Georgia Community Streetcar Development and Revitalization Act," will direct the State Road and Tollway Authority to set up a grant program to assist local governments and public-private partnerships in setting up streetcar services.

Adelman, who's become the bill's foremost champion, says the legislation also would enable Georgia to get federal money earmarked solely for streetcar systems. Called Smart Start, the program provides up to $75 million for each streetcar project.

"That means we could receive $75 million for the Memorial Drive streetcar line, $75 million for a Buford Highway streetcar line, and then, of course ... the Peachtree streetcar line," says Adelman. "These are clogged arteries and streets ... where the right-of-way already exists. They have all the ingredients of a successful streetcar line."

It's easy to see why Adelman, who represents intown Atlanta, wants the streetcars. But why would Williams want to accommodate residents of a city that's more than 150 miles from his constituents? The answer is, well, sentimental.

"My parents grew up in Atlanta ... and their first date was on a streetcar," Williams says. "I was born in Atlanta and lived all my life on a farm in the country, but we'd often come back and ride the trolleys. I have some good memories of that. My mother and father had some tremendous memories."

Williams also says he believes in the old but seldom-invoked adage: What's good for Atlanta is good for the state.

"My efforts now are just to try to convince the members who don't live in the metro section that this [streetcar bill] is something we should as a state support," Williams says. "It's a public-private initiative that typically Republicans support, and whatever I can do to convince them that this should be a priority, I'm doing.

"We're at least going to get it through the Senate."

Williams can make that claim with confidence because he's chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, one of the most powerful positions under the Gold Dome. As committee chairman, he controls which roads and projects get state transportation dollars.

His power under the Gold Dome, and his dedication to mass transit, make him the perfect ally to help Atlanta crawl out of its traffic quagmire. "The fact that Tommie Williams from Lyons, Georgia, is supporting this bill shows a significant shift," says Adelman. "I think it's an acknowledgement that solving Atlanta's transportation problems will benefit the entire state."

Williams' leadership and commitment to transit certainly helped MARTA at a Feb. 9 meeting of the Senate Transportation Committee, where a bill that would assist MARTA with its severe funding crunch was debated.

MARTA CEO Nathaniel Ford asked the committee to approve legislation allowing the transit agency to continue to spend 55 percent of its revenue on operating the system until 2011. Current legislation will require MARTA to revert in 2006 to a funding formula by which only 45 percent of its revenue can be spent on operations.

Five years ago, Ford's request likely would have fallen on deaf ears. And it's probable that he'd have been grilled by rural lawmakers over MARTA's weakening financial health.

Instead, Williams said at the hearing, "I'm amazed that [MARTA] moves half a million people each day." After about 10 additional minutes of discussion, the MARTA legislation passed unanimously. The committee also passed a law that will give the MARTA board the power to fire do-nothing or unethical board members - a power the board currently lacks.

Williams, when asked the next day about the new attitude toward MARTA, said, "That animosity may have existed more in years gone by. MARTA had some credibility problem at times. When you're mismanaging the taxpayers' funds, it's going to be hard to build support. But I think that's improved."

Still, despite MARTA's recent service cuts that amounted to saving $80 million, Gov. Sonny Perdue continues to ignore MARTA when doling out billions of dollars in state transportation projects.

"At this point in time, it's going to be difficult to get state funds for MARTA," Williams admits. "We'll just have to plug along and build some credibility there, and then at some point and time put all these systems together."

Perdue also has bailed on his commitment to a 26-mile commuter rail line from Atlanta to Lovejoy by failing to include in his proposed 2006 budget $6 million in capital funds - money that would have been matched by local governments. The governor's reluctance to put state money into transportation projects that don't involve asphalt has raised serious questions about the future of mass transit in the state.

One bill could almost fix MARTA's problems overnight. By changing the state Constitution to allow funds generated from the gas tax to go toward mass transit projects, a portion of the estimated $750 million in annual gas tax revenue could be steered away from the construction or maintenance of roads and toward public transit.

Unfortunately, that bill will go nowhere, Williams says, because Department of Transportation officials fiercely oppose it.

So, Williams is holding out hope for the alternative ways the state can help MARTA, the Belt Line, and other mass transit projects.

For example, Williams currently is putting together a bill that would allow Georgians to vote on a special 1-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects around the state, including congestion relief, transit, and paving.

"I happen to believe that most people are still going to drive their cars," he says. "I don't think we're going to change that, but what we can change is that by revitalizing Atlanta with streetcars and the Belt Line, more people will live inside the Perimeter and not have to use a car."