Too much of a good thing?
By Dick Pettys
The Associated Press
A TLANTA - For Georgia governors during the last half of the 20th century, growth was the pot of gold - the key to prosperity for a South still fighting its way out of too much poverty, too much illiteracy and too much neglect.
But if growth gave them the means to solve some of the state's problems, it came at a terrible cost. Now a new generation of political leaders must grapple with a legacy of urban sprawl, clogged highways, fouled air and polluted waterways.
After a gubernatorial campaign in which the problems of sprawl moved to the front burner, the veteran legislator brings an agenda that includes a commuter-rail system and a plan to handle water and sewer problems.
"The problems of sprawl - the problems of progress - are going to be at the forefront like never before," predicted House Democratic Leader Larry Walker of Perry.
"In the past, we've always dealt with not having enough, with trying to catch up - the problems of lack of progress," he said. "All of a sudden, we're facing the opposite problem."
"Growth has always been the mantra for Georgia and it will continue to be," said Peachtree City developer Joel Cowan, a growth policy adviser to three former governors.
"The reason it's being looked at now is, we're fouling our own water," Cowan added. "If we don't do something to handle the growth in a more sustainable fashion, the growth will end. Industry will go elsewhere because we've suddenly lost our superior quality of life."
One symptom of the problem is visible almost every day to Atlanta's 2.8 million drivers: bumper-to-bumper traffic on roads once termed "expressways," but which rarely fit that description now.
Many of the cars are based in Atlanta's far-flung suburbs, and a study last year by the Environmental Protection Agency showed that Atlantans had a longer average commute than people in any other city in the world - an average of 34.7 miles a day.
Air pollution in the metro area has jeopardized millions of dollars in federal road funds because the area has failed to comply with the federal Clean Air Act.
Barnes' proposed solution is regional commuter rail that goes far beyond Atlanta's core to pick up suburban commuters and relieve some of the traffic congestion and pollution.
Barnes told legislators last month that the proposal will be "the battle of the session."
He has not revealed his full plan, but the overall idea is to create a regional transportation authority with the necessary power to build and operate commuter rail. Eventually, there could be links to outlying cities, such as Macon, but the crucial Atlanta problem must be solved first, he has said.
It is still unknown how the authority would coordinate with existing, independent bus-and-rail systems in the area or what powers it would have to extend rail into suburban counties that may be resistant to linking up with Atlanta.
"It is very apt to be one of those real hot potatoes that people have a hard time dealing with," said Rep. Garland Pinholster, R-Ball Ground. "I think government is on the right track in looking at the broad picture ... but as a conservative, I sure don't buy more government."
Walker, the House Democratic leader, said it will be a hard sell.
"We've got to deal with the racial aspect of that problem," he said.
"People in the counties surrounding Fulton are not particularly interested in and perhaps would resist regional transportation."
Too, he said, while metro Atlanta struggles with its success, "You've still got parts of the state not enjoying this bounty and progress, and you've got to talk about those people, too."
In a recent interview, Barnes agreed.
"The key to Georgia's future is to encourage growth where we don't have enough and to have planned growth where we have too much," he said.
So Barnes will also push highway construction for rural Georgia and long-distance rail for outlying urban areas.
Sprawl also has contributed to water pollution problems, particularly with the Chattahoochee River.
Atlanta became a whipping-boy for some candidates last year for its role in polluting the river, but Barnes contends it's a broader problem than that and also has proposed a regionalized solution.
He has put forth no plan for that yet, however, and plans to fight that battle in a subsequent legislative session.
While some may see the problems of sprawl as "quality of life" issues, many, including the Atlanta business community, view them as economic danger signs.
"We've all ridden the effects of a great economic boom over the last 30 years, and that boom is fueled by the growth of the area," said Rep. Bob Irvin of Atlanta, the House Republican leader. "And I think there is concern the growth might slow down a lot as a result of this problem."