We are about to find out whether the recent embrace of commuter rail by many Georgia Republicans is a genuine romance or mere infatuation.
On the same Tuesday that America put Donald Trump in the White House, voters in the city of Atlanta overwhelmingly approved a half-penny sales tax for the largest expansion of rail in MARTA history.
The face of the campaign to generate $2.5 billion for MARTA over the next four decades largely belonged to Kasim Reed. Which made sense.
The Atlanta mayor’s bipartisan partnership with Gov. Nathan Deal has worked well for the entire state, particularly in securing federal commitments for the dredging of the Port of Savannah. The mayor has given Georgia entrée to the Obama administration. Deal, a former congressman, has coordinated efforts on the GOP side of the aisle.
It was widely presumed that the alliance would continue into a Hillary Clinton administration, as MARTA began its search for the federal matching funds essential to building, among other things, a rail line to Emory University and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But with Trump in the White House, Republicans are no longer in need of a Democrat to serve as ambassador to the executive branch. The underlying political foundation for the Deal-Reed partnership will disappear in January.
Which means that, for the foreseeable future, the federal financing of transit in Georgia will be a thoroughly Republican affair.
Details are likely to remain scarce for weeks, if not months. But if you’re a commuter rail fan, it is possible that Trump, a New York businessman who understands his city’s dependence on subways, will become your champion.
“We have to spend money on mass transit. We have to fix our airports, fix our roads also in addition to mass transit, but we have to spend a lot of money,” Trump said during his campaign, emphasizing the need to create more jobs.
How to pay for the massive infrastructure investment is something that Trump would have to negotiate with Congress.
On the other side of the spectrum is a platform adopted at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. The Obama administration, according to the document, “subordinates civil engineering to social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit.”
The platform pointed out that 20 percent of the federal Highway Trust Fund, which is funded by a gasoline tax, is “spent on mass transit, an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population, concentrated in six big cities.”
That needs to end, the platform states, in favor of subsidies for roads and bridges.
Georgia Republicans in Congress stand somewhere in between those two positions. In Washington, MARTA lobbyists are already scouting the new terrain.
“The good news about transit in Atlanta is that it’s much less of a partisan issue than it used to be. Transit in the 21st century means business. It means economic opportunity,” said Robbie Ashe, the chairman of MARTA’s governing board. “We remain optimistic that we will be able to explain our value and successfully compete for federal funds.”
As a Republican-led Congress and GOP-occupied White House bargain over federal spending, certain Georgia figures will assume more importance in the transit debate.
U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger, is a “cardinal” on the House Appropriations Committee, chairman of a subcommittee with say-so over spending for Congress itself. That gives him clout.
“He is ready to work with the Trump administration, Governor Deal and the entire Georgia delegation on all transportation issues, including transit,” a Graves spokesman said of his boss.
But it’s worth noting that Graves also advocates sending federal transportation dollars to states in block grants that would give state governments control over where that cash goes.
Then there’s U.S. Sen. David Perdue. He’s likely to have special access to the new administration, given his early and full-throated endorsement of Trump, a fellow businessman and outsider. Perdue has a special interest in debt reduction and curbs on federal spending, but he might be able to endorse transit as a tool of economic development.
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, freshly elected to a third term, has long been metro Atlanta’s transportation advocate in Congress, whether for roads, MARTA or Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
In August, in the midst of his campaign, Isakson noted the changing attitude toward transit, particularly in north Fulton County. “Voters are there. They would be willing to do it. It would have to be a heavy rail line,” the senator said.
But when I called his office last week, to determine whether the matching funds that MARTA now intends to seek will still exist in the next four years of a Trump administration, Isakson’s response, delivered by a spokeswoman, was somewhat subdued.
“There may be a role in the federal government for some mass transit through federal grants or other sources, but the Highway Trust Fund should be used as it was intended for roads, highways and bridges,” Isakson said.
That is a statement worth some study. It sounds like an acknowledgement that the funds targeted in the Cleveland platform are indeed destined to disappear. Which means that competition for other funds, some through the Federal Transit Administration, will be more intense.
The last fellow I talked to about transit in a Republican future was more optimistic. “I think our chances with President-elect Trump are good,” said state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta. “He wants to build things — but he also wants to eliminate the red tape.”
Beach is an advocate for pushing rail service up through north Fulton — a project that is on hold for now. He’s got his fingers crossed that Trump will appoint U.S. Rep. John Mica of Florida, a transit supporter, as secretary of transportation.
“I keep saying that transit is going to be determined by the market,” Beach said. One simply can’t ignore the businesses that are relocating to be close to MARTA lines in metro Atlanta, he said.
Beach beat back a primary challenger earlier this year who attempted to use his support for rail against him. It didn’t work.
Here’s something to look for: There is currently much talk that U.S. Rep. Tom Price, R-Roswell, might soon be wrapped into the Trump administration as secretary of health and human services.
The competition to succeed Price would be plentiful. But it would surprise no one if Beach were one of the contenders, willing to take that argument for transit up to Washington.