Just four days after legislators devoured vast forkfuls of feral pork at the annual Wild Hog Supper, they joined Georgia's highway-building trust to gorge on catered beef and poultry at the Road Hog Supper.
They gathered in splendor amid the ancient Moorish trappings of the Fox Theatre. High rollers paid $10,000 a table. Favored politicians and state employees got in free. They heard from the ailing godfather of highway builders, Wayne Shackelford, and from the state's newest "roads governor," Sonny Perdue.
Then, they were entertained by the famous transportation singer, Travis "Traffic" Tritt, who crooned, "Let's keep Georgia drivin' on!"
At least that's what I was told. I wouldn't know. They kicked me out.
"We figured the press probably would be the same whether you were here or not," said Courtney Townsend, chief financial officer and bouncer for Georgians for Better Transportation.
GBT is a lobbying group representing road builders, concrete companies, bulldozer vendors and other powerful highwaymen. They've amassed fortunes while creating a freeway system that, at certain hours of the day, doesn't work. And they stand to get much richer if the state places the future of transportation policy into their hands.
The gathering at the Fox was Georgia's cornpone version of the corrosive influence-peddling environment of the K Street lobbyists in Washington, D.C. K Street is at the heart of the Jack Abramoff/Tom DeLay corruption scandal. But that's just a street. Georgia has 12-lane highways.
Last Thursday's gala may have been the single most lavish lobbying event in the state's history. It should have been an absolute triumph for Mike Kenn, the former Atlanta Falcons lineman and former Fulton County Commission chairman. But it wasn't an altogether perfect day.
The road-building juggernaut encountered a slight speed bump a few hours earlier at an Atlanta Regional Commission committee meeting.
THE ARC's Transportation and Air Quality Committee had been scheduled that morning to vote on a resolution from the governor's Congestion Mitigation Task Force. At the behest of GBT, the task force called for a radical change in the priorities for selecting future regional transportation projects. Until now, nine factors -- including safety, environmental benefits and congestion relief -- were given equal weight, roughly 11 percent each.
The task force recommended changing that formula to put 70 percent of the decision-making emphasis on a project's potential for congestion relief.
Eight citizens, representing various organizations, objected to the plan at the Dec. 12 committee meeting.
They pointed out that nobody really knows what effect the task force recommendation will have. They were concerned that the heavy emphasis on congestion relief demands a focus on moving cars at rush hour, not moving people. And that would just perpetuate the shortsighted cycle that got us our traffic problems in the first place: More roads allow more far-flung development, which causes more driving, which creates the demand for more roads.
Because of Georgia's sordid history of putting its future in the hands of louts with bulldozers, the speakers at the meeting were deeply concerned that, once again, roads will triumph and transit will suffer.
"While throwing money at highway expansions will make money for the members of the Georgians for Better Transportation, it will not improve the quality of life for residents of this region," said Patty Durand, director of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club.
After the public comments, Ed Wall, MARTA's new chairman and a member of the ARC committee, moved to table the resolution for a month so he could study its impact. He pointed out that as an investment banker, he had to question any number that suddenly shifts from 11 percent to 70 percent. Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin immediately seconded his motion, which passed. Committee members will be briefed on the impact of the resolution by ARC staffers -- who aren't really sure what it will do.
ARC Chairman Sam Olens bristled at what he called the "sky is falling" tone of the citizen comments. He pointed out that nobody commented on the fact that, in the same meeting, the committee approved the creation of a Regional Transit Planning Board.
"The perception is that [the Congestion Mitigation Task Force resolution] won't permit more transit at the same time the ARC is taking the largest step in decades to encourage more mass transit," he said later.
That evening, Olens was one of the few politicians who stopped to talk with about four dozen people in front of the Fox before the GBT gala. They were from the Sierra Club and the Amalgamated Transit Union. They were gathered to form a "human train," chugging back and forth on the sidewalk, calling for mass transit.
As finely clad legislators and bigwigs entered the Fox -- including Ralph Reed, who emerged from a black limousine -- the demonstrators called for state funding of MARTA and other steps toward a wiser transportation future.
MARTA is financed by a sales tax in Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb.
"Two-4-6-8! MARTA funding from the state!" the demonstrators chanted. "Hey, Sonny, what do you say? How many roads did you build today?"
Mark Woodall, legislative chairman of the Sierra Club, took part in the demonstration. He pointed out that a bill to help keep MARTA afloat by giving it more flexibility in the use of its tax revenues was held up in the General Assembly last year. He also noted that a bill was introduced last week in an attempt to block the state's first commuter rail line between Lovejoy and Atlanta.
Woodall said the Fox event was "about as close to Abramoff-type spinning as we get around here."
Woodall and friends chugged away as the event was beginning, so I headed inside with my Senate media floor pass. A member of Tritt's entourage summoned me and took me to Courtney Townsend, who tossed me out.
Oh, what a swell evening I missed.
Gov. Perdue spoke to 500 guests seated at candlelit tables about roads and the big bucks it takes to build them, with barely a mention of mass transit.
As his audience choked down flatiron steak, herb-encrusted chicken and shallot mashed potatoes, Perdue said that for Georgia road builders, 2005 was a very good year. The state Department of Transportation awarded more than $1.1 billion in projects -- the most money ever in a single year. That is why contractors like APAC and C.W. Matthews could easily pay $10,000 per table to GBT to get up close to the governor.
After dinner, Tritt brought down the house when he changed the words in one of his songs from "Let's Keep Country Drivin' On" to "Let's Keep Georgia Drivin' On."
As I looked around at the Fox's architectural touches on my way out, I thought the evening seemed less Egyptian than Babylonian.
I was not alone. The gala was so grotesque that it even repulsed the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's in-house Republican, Jim Wooten.
"Georgians for Better Transportation has lousy timing in sponsoring an ostentatious Travis Tritt concert for legislators," Wooten wrote. "After Jack Abramoff, extravaganzas that connect high rollers and politics aren't smart."
That's a terribly critical thing for a staunch Republican to say. I'm going to warn Wooten, in case he's thinking about attending any GBT events in the future.
Courtney Townsend just might throw his ass out.
Senior Editor Doug Monroe wrote a column about traffic for the Journal-Constitution for five years. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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