Great cities usually have great ports, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told a downtown luncheon gathering of the Kiwanis Club of Atlanta on Tuesday, Jan. 8. That’s why, he explained, he champions a high-speed rail line between Atlanta and Savannah.
“The only real criticism of Atlanta is that Atlanta doesn’t have an ocean,” he said justifying his support of Gov. Nathan Deal’s efforts to secure the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project.
A Democrat, the mayor has been praised for his willingness to work with a Republican-dominated General Assembly and the Republican governor on issues of common interest.
He has received a lot of attention for his support of the deepening of the Savannah port to allow passage of the larger carriers due to be traveling through the Panama Canal’s expanded locks as soon as next year.
While there has been substantial bipartisan agreement about the importance of the deepening of the Savannah River, Mr. Reed has played an important role in providing access to Washington officials and federal funds.
During the luncheon Mr. Reed didn’t mind brandishing his Democratic credentials, especially for a pet project such as the high-speed rail that would enable Atlantans to travel to Savannah in approximately an hour.
Should such a rail line be built, the entire state would benefit, he said, adding that his support for the port expansion included Atlanta’s self-interest in having a rail line connecting it to Savannah.
He added that he would go after funds that other states including Florida have rejected to pay for federal high-speed rail lines.
In addition to highlighting his willingness to solicit federal funds, he pointed to his accomplishments as a fiscal conservative. When he first assumed the mayor’s office in 2010, the city only had financial reserves of $7.4 million. Today, its reserves amount to $126 million.
The mayor has been praised nationally for this turnaround that he accomplished primarily by increasing city workers’ contributions and shifting to a defined contribution plan.
But instead of boasting about his fiscal stewardship as reflecting a “tough” management style, he said he was able to make the shift without raising property taxes or firing employees. He has even hired more police.
One of his priorities for this year is to increase the number of Atlanta police to 2,000 even though the city’s crime rates have gone down with the murder rate going down to the lower levels experienced during the 1960s.
He was proud of his reopening the city’s recreation centers, providing public housing for homeless veterans and improving the city’s water and sewage capabilities even if he had to raise those bills.
He said that the city would benefit from the new streetcar line that is to connect downtown venues and the opening of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights Museum and a College Football Hall of Fame to replace the recently closed hall in South Bend, Ind.
He also voiced his full support for a new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons, calling the proposed funding “an opportunity that’s not going to come again.”
Without naming Arthur Blank, he said that he didn’t think another Falcons owner would be willing to pay 70 percent of the cost of a new facility, which he or she wouldn’t even own in the long run.
Mr. Blank has said that he would be willing to cover $700 million of the cost of a $1 billion stadium with $300 million coming from a hotel-motel tax. The Georgia Dome, the current facility, can be expected to last only 15 to 20 more years at best, the mayor said.
Mr. Reed said he particularly supported the deal because it would help the city’s tourism and convention business which attracts 37 million people a year and provides employment for thousands of residents especially “first-time employees.”
Mr. Reed’s efforts to join forces with business interests have not always turned out well for him, however, such as last year’s failure of the T-SPLOST transportation initiative that was quashed in a referendum.
While his remarks were primarily upbeat, he recognized the city’s public school problems including the “worst cheating scandal in the state of Georgia.” He said he would actively recruit the best superintendent that Atlanta can find, no matter what the cost.
On a lighter note, he also said that he plans to synchronize the city’s traffic lights, one of his mother’s highest priorities, which is to be paid by the city’s proposed infrastructure bond package.
Mr. Reed is chairman of the Transportation and Communications Committee of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and chairman of the Regional Transit Committee of the Atlanta Regional Commission.
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