Humbug Square - The great train robbery

Pardon me, boys, are you derailing our choo-choo?

On Sunday evenings during my freshman year at the University of Georgia, my dad dropped me off at the Emory rail station, where I caught the train to Athens. I headed to the bar car because the bartender didn't check ID. I sipped Budweiser, smoked Winstons and watched the lights of Winder, Statham and Bogart flicker by before the train pulled into downtown Athens.

I was talking the other day with another kid who rode the train on those same Sunday evenings. I didn't know him then. His dad dropped him off to catch the train in downtown Atlanta. And the thing he remembered most about the bar car was the food, not the beer.

Maybe that's one reason he grew up to become governor.

"I caught the train to Athens every Sunday night," said former Gov. Roy Barnes. "I went to Union Station before they tore it down. The train left at 6:15 and I'd buy sandwiches in the car."

I was talking to Barnes about passenger trains because it looks as if some transportation troglodytes are trying to derail them in Georgia before they even get started again. It's a pity because we're just about a year away from actually running a commuter rail line like a real, grown-up metropolis. You know, like New York, Washington or even Dallas. The first line would extend from Atlanta to Lovejoy, a suburb in Clayton County.

Many conservatives in Georgia hate trains. A lot of them read Jim Wooten, the Republican Party mouthpiece who writes columns for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is a virulent anti-train propagandist.

Not long after Wooten trashed trains in his column, the Hampton City Council voted against backing a station on the proposed Lovejoy line.

"They must read Jim," Barnes said. "They must believe it's the Bible."

Wooten isn't alone. Last week, state Transportation Board Chairman David Doss of Rome told Morris Newspapers (Athens, Augusta and Savannah) that he and several other board members have doubts about conventional rail being the best option for improving commuter travel in metro Atlanta.

"This is basically a choo-choo train," Doss told the reporter. "We're talking about 19th-century technology trying to solve a 21st-century problem."

Ha, ha. What a visionary! What a card!

We've been falling behind the times by just talking about getting commuter rail for 20 years, and these guys are saying it's an outmoded idea!

I e-mailed the Morris article to Ross Goddard, a retired U.S. Army colonel who has spent the past quarter-century trying to bring rail passenger service back to Georgia.

"There are members of the state Department of Transportation board who are ignorant of the success of commuter rail in other places and who, for reasons of prejudice, don't want to try it here," said Goddard, a member of the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority for 10 years. "I would suggest that the state DOT board get some good information about the striking successes of commuter rail in places such as Chicago, Boston, New York and Los Angeles."

The prejudice against trains in Georgia is this: People who make their money off roads and the politicians who take their campaign contributions think we can keep running cars and building roads forever — or at least for the rest of their greedy little lives. They ridicule anything that doesn't fit in with their myopia. They don't see the terrible implications of Iraq beginning to align with Iran. They don't see the ominous threat of Peak Oil. After the world has slurped up half its petroleum, we'll find that our precious energy source will become increasingly expensive and difficult to obtain. This is a matter of urgent concern among geologists, economists and calm, thoughtful futurists such as myself.

But you don't have to be a Peak Oil crank like me to believe in commuter rail. It makes good sense, not just as a substitute for the auto, but as a way to reduce traffic congestion.

"I'm not an anti-road guy and I'm also not a sole-road guy," says Barnes. "I know you have to have a balanced approach. You don't need everybody to ride the train. All you need is 3-to-5 percent to get out of their cars."

If we don't get the trains running now, he warns, while we have $106 million in federal, state and local money on the table, we might never do it.

A committee of the transportation board last week delayed a decision on the Lovejoy line for another month. The latest bone of contention is over Clayton County committing to pay operating and maintenance expenses not generated from the fare box after the state and federal funds run out after three years.

Clayton County leaders indicated they'll be able to get the necessary backing from county commissioners and communities along the proposed line.

Many people south of town want the rail line, despite the rabble-rousing of Wooten and state Rep. Steve Davis, R-McDonough. One of Wooten's arguments is that the train fare will be too high.

Not for long, Jim. Not if the price of gas continues to go through the roof.

We've reached an extraordinary point in Georgia. Atlanta regional leaders are suddenly reinventing the wheel for transportation planning, busily coming up with yet another new organization for transit planning, implementation and funding.

MARTA Chairman Michael Walls says the new planning board may turn out to be necessary.

"There is at this point no regional transportation planning," Walls said.

Here we are, in 2005, and we have no regional transportation planning?

"What about GRTA? What about the ARC?" I asked Walls, referring to the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and the Atlanta Regional Commission.

"GRTA was planned to fill that role, but GRTA has never done that," Walls said. "As ARC is constituted, I don't think it's equipped to be the regional transportation planner."

Yeah, because every little peckerwood county in the ARC has the same voting power as Atlanta.

If this new board gets created, will it work?

"The key issue is who controls the purse strings," says Georgia Tech civil engineering professor Michael Meyer. If the new organization doesn't control the money, then "we've just created another group to talk to one another."

Talk! What a concept!

Then I asked Meyer about commuter rail. "I think it's a worthy experiment to see if something like this would work," he said. "But my experience and gut tell me it will be a very difficult mountain to climb to get commuter rail to be successful in this region."

The point is we shouldn't have dilly-dallied on rail for two decades, while sprawl ran amuck. Now, with people even more dependent on their automobiles, that little choo-choo has an uphill grade.

"I've always said the things we're talking about now we should have done 15 to 20 years ago," he says.

I want to cry now.

The future of Atlanta is going to be quite different from its past. Other Southern cities are waking up to the transportation future far better than we are. Charlotte is building light rail. Dallas and Miami have started commuter rail. As we continue to talk about fixing to get around to maybe doing something at some point about our transportation fiasco, we're not going to look all that smart to the rest of the world.

Senior Editor Doug Monroe took his first train ride on the Silver Comet to Birmingham more than 50 years ago. You can reach him at doug.monroe@creativeloafing.com.