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Bringing Back Downtown

There is life left in America’s Main Streets

by John Robert Smith

Last year, I left my hometown of Meridian, Mississippi and the house that my grandfather built to come to Washington, D.C. to work on the next federal transportation bill. Why? Because I believe the transportation investment decisions Congress makes today will determine our grandchildren’s quality of life.

I am a lifelong advocate for passenger rail and a strong believer in people deserving choice in where they live and work and how they get there. But my 4-year-old grandson was the driving factor in this decision to move. He is the fifth generation of my family to live in that house. He is growing up in a town rich with history and tradition and a superb quality of life. But what will he see when he opens the front door in 15 years? Will the streets of America’s small towns be choked with traffic and the sky tinged yellow with pollution? Worse, will the towns be abandoned because of lack of opportunity? Will he have just returned from serving his country protecting the oil reserves we desperately need to sustain a viable economy? Or will he step out the door and catch a streetcar that will take him to the train station that his grandfather built, where he will board Amtrak’s higher-speed Crescent for a trip to the international airport in New Orleans for a journey overseas?

In smaller towns and rural areas across the U.S., reliable intercity rail systems provide an essential connection to the rest of America. For these towns, traffic congestion isn’t the problem, the challenge is access to the mainstream American economy, as well as long commutes, volatile energy prices, and shifting demographics. People may not like to drive long distances for their jobs, healthcare, or education, but they often have no other choice.

I was mayor when we opened Meridian’s Union Station 12 years ago to link interstate rail, bus, and city transit in a way that created a sense of place when visitors arrived in our downtown. The city invested $1.3 million in that train station, leveraging an additional $5.3 million investment, and then that station project leveraged another $135 million in public and private investment in the downtown core, leading to the restoration of our historic downtown. Today, the train station annually hosts about 250 events and 300,000 visitors. Nearby is a new performing arts center, a restored Grand Opera house, a neighborhood with new retail and restaurants, and a mixed-income residential area, all of which have contributed to the revival of downtown Meridian.

The success of the train station and the downtown renaissance has made me a believer in the power of linking transportation to community revitalization. These transit-oriented development projects breathe new life into communities and they generate lasting public and private returns. They provide connectivity and livability, which is essentially quality of life—something everyone wants regardless of where they live, what they earn, or who they vote for.

Transportation touches every aspect of life in cities and towns of all sizes. People must have options. That is why I came to Washington.

John Robert Smith is president and CEO of Reconnecting America and the former Republican mayor of Meridian, Mississippi.

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