Are We There Yet?

By Guest Columnist ANDRE DICKENS, a member of the Atlanta City Council who serves the entire city

Every day, Atlantans share our roads and rails with our 5.7-million-person region. How you get to work, school, and home matters to me – is it stress-free, smooth, safe, and predictable?

In recent years, the city has successfully embarked upon several major initiatives designed to alleviate traffic congestion and improve the city’s transportation infrastructure including:

  • andre dickens, edit

    Andre Dickens

    “T-SPLOST” (estimated to generate approximately $300 million);

  • MARTA sales tax (estimated to generate approximately $2.5 billion);
  • Renew Atlanta program (investing $250 million in infrastructure);
  • Expanding the Atlanta BeltLine;
  • Expanding the Atlanta streetcar;
  • Exceptional new leadership in the Public Works and Planning departments;
  • Funding a chief bicycle officer.

Connectivity is a fundamental strand in our DNA. Logistics jobs employ our workforce. The world’s busiest airport gives us global competitive advantage. We are a city whose very birth is tied to the crossing of two railroad tracks. Connectivity is something we must get right.

Within weeks after a fire took out a portion of Interstate 85, we had shutdowns of I-285, the I-75/I-85 Downtown Connector, I-20, and a sinkhole on 5th Street, to combine with a daily grind that is nationally known. Fortunately, the repairs of I-85 are scheduled for completion in a few weeks, but our transportation problems require more planning and investment.

After decades of congestion and connectivity being some of Atlanta’s top issues, Atlanta should consider consolidating city resources into a Department of Transportation (DOT). This department would provide a coordinated approach to improving how we all move around the city we love. And while the name ADOT doesn’t matter to me, the outcomes do.

Atlanta traffic, buckhead

Atlanta drivers have learned that the inside lane of a six-lane road is reserved for vehicles that aim to turn left in a short distance. File/Credit: David Pendered

Earlier this year, I authored legislation requesting that the city’s deputy COO conduct a study due by June 30 that evaluates the pros and cons of having a single transportation-focused department. He, along with consultants, will analyze best practices, successful organizational models, resource allocations, and the cost associated with creating such a department.

If implemented, an Atlanta DOT would serve both as the coordinating agency for all transportation matters within the city government and as the single point of contact for citizens and external agencies. It would provide clarity to the public and improve people flow on our roads and rails.

However transportation is part of the larger ecosystem that is our city. Meaningful transportation solutions are critical to ensuring that our city has balanced growth. Balanced growth can manifest itself in multiple ways that range from:

  • Addressing residential and commercial disinvestment south of I-20;
  • Economically inclusive housing development across the city; and
  • Improving transportation patterns to job centers by car, bus, train, bike, or sidewalk.

That’s why I co-authored legislation calling on the city’s TSPLOST and MARTA taxes to also improve the outcomes of our local businesses, job seekers and residents and why I support a Living Transit Fund.

Pittsburgh

Balancing Atlanta’s growth includes addressing disinvestment in neighborhoods south of I-20, such as these burnt and boarded-up houses in Pittsburgh, west of Turner Field. Credit: David Pendered

Connectivity doesn’t just mean getting to where you want to go today. It means getting to where you want to get in life. Too many Atlanta families have encountered “life connectivity” barriers for generations. Better connecting those citizens can change their prospects.

Numerous leading cities such as New York City, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Portland have single transportation-focused departments. According to a 2015 Sacramento transportation study, cities with single transit-focused departments tend to win more federal grants and complete more projects timely because they devote critical resources to problems.

I’ve stood at numerous intersections across the city with citizens and engineers. We try to understand why people are stuck at a light or why a road is not smooth. We have intersections, interchanges and corridors like 10th and Monroe Drive, I-285 and Cascade Road, that all have complexities that our talented teams from Public Works, Renew Atlanta, Planning, BeltLine and other partners work on. But we all know that we can do even better.

The Georgia Tech engineer in me is constantly looking for an integrated process that builds on a foundation of best practices a solution that is unique to Atlanta. Last year, while I was the committee chairman, the Department of City Planning was reorganized. The outcomes are: Faster permits for our residents and businesses, better customer service, and more community engagement. We can improve transportation in this same manner.

Great cities tackle tough challenges. We have a history of doing that in Atlanta. Atlanta traffic is a big challenge but addressing it together can create results that transform our city and the lives of our people. Coordinated transportation investments can help get our people to jobs; it can reduce income inequality; it can create economic and community development opportunities for all Atlantans. We need to rethink mobility in Atlanta – transportation is a way for people to not only move around, but move up.

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