Transportation referendum a defining moment for Atlanta

By Guest Columnist BRUCE GUNTER, president of Progressive Redevelopment Inc.

It is no hyperbole to state that the upcoming transportation referendum in July this year is a momentous opportunity for Atlantans.

It is on par, as many have suggested, with the 1996 Olympics that thrust Atlanta into the ranks of global cities or the expansion of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport that had such a high economic impact and spawned valuable global connections.

Traffic and ridership counts, governance structures, and other indices of a modern transportation system are important, of course, but focusing on these critical factors alone can obscure what is at stake.

This vote will determine nothing less than whether Atlanta will continue to grow, or to slowly decline relative to other metropolitan areas in the country and the world.

Moreover, working class and lower income Atlantans will also benefit from a transportation system that offers more choice, interconnectivity, and improved mobility.

Of course, the referendum is just a start toward that goal, but a good start with 52 percent of the regional projects being transit projects.

Bruce Gunter

Rarely do people get to choose a paradigm. Rarely are competing visions so diametrically different. And rarer still is a grand opportunity to embrace confidence of the future, leaving our metro area better positioned to compete in the global economy.

As we all experience in one way or another, today’s economy is changing at a head-snapping pace, driven by huge money flows derived by tapping into global markets and technology that aids and abets commerce and communication. Massive real estate investment funds seek out places where these attributes coalesce, labeling them as “global gateways” and “24-hour markets.”

There is a reason housing prices have resumed an upward trajectory in places like New York, Boston, Washington and San Francisco. Big money will follow where markets can thrive, as will the highly educated, “knowledge workers” that increasingly drive today’s economy.

Think of the most desirable areas in Atlanta — they are, like their counterparts around the country, full of interesting places and people, connected and walkable.

They have characteristics unlike an earlier era’s sprawl model–congregating housing, commercial, retail and cultural establishments to produce vibrant, appealing areas, epitomized in Atlanta by areas such as Midtown, Perimeter and Decatur.

Transit and density are key factors, enabling people to access places they need to by a means other than the automobile. If this mix is characteristic of current and past great cities — such as New York, London and Paris — it is most assuredly true of future ones.

If Atlanta does not recognize that the cities that will prosper in the future will have transit systems and walkable neighborhoods, then global investment will seek out other regional gateways such as Denver and Dallas, or even Charlotte.

Over time, Atlanta will be left behind.

On the other hand, both ends of the economic spectrum will benefit from a modern transportation system.

Global gateway or not, maintaining an affordable stock of housing in thriving areas has always been a challenge. The usual method was to build housing in lower cost areas, far away from job centers. As we now know, that pattern helped create the monstrous congestion that threatens our continued prosperity.

In recent years, research has comprehensively documented what working class families know all too well — that the real cost of housing includes the cost of transportation to access jobs and services beyond the home.

Seen in this light, the model of suburban affordability breaks down, causing household budgets to reel and thoroughfares to congeal. Working class and lower income families that can access transit close to their homes will be far better off, as will the roads that they formerly used.

Moreover, in region after region, economic growth has followed the installation of transit.

Truly, only time will tell whether this decision will change the course of Atlanta’s history. Momentous turning points are only clear in the rear view mirror.

However, everything points to a decisive fork in the road.

Atlanta not too long ago was an economic growth engine and destination of many seeking opportunity — upwards of a 100,000 a year moved into metro Atlanta.

This engine has stalled. In 2009, only 17,000 people moved into the region, which goes a long way toward explaining why so many houses remain unsold. Per capita income has been low and growth stagnant for more than 10 years. And our inadequate transportation system is a major impediment toward resuming strong economic growth.

Eventually, housing demand will reduce the huge over-supply and foreclosed inventory that currently holds us down. Before long, Atlanta’s intrinsic advantages—the airport, our excellent universities, the “crown jewels” of beautiful neighborhoods–will again attract newcomers.

The question is whether that growth will maintain Atlanta as a comparatively modest center of regional commerce and culture, or will it propel the city into the ranks of global gateways.

The choice is ours.

Jim Stokes, interim executive director of the Livable Communities Coalition of Metro Atlanta, contributed to this article.

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4 comments
Bob Munger
Bob Munger

The author makes some good points, including the importance of recognizing the paradigm shift that has occurred in housing preferences, and how they impact economic development.

Perhaps more important is that we plan for the likelihood of a future with much higher oil prices. Political hot air notwithstanding, the price of oil, like so many commodities in today's global economy, are no longer driven primarily by what happens in the USA. Growing economies in developing nations abroad are driving up global vehicle ownership at rapid rates. The best chance of slowing that down is unfortunately an oil-induced price shock, leading to another global recession.

Transit and use of Georgia's homegrown low speed electric vehicles (and other forms of sustainable transportation) as "segways" to connect to transit make for a nice contingency plan for oil price sticker shock.

Michael Mealling
Michael Mealling

I've googled around a bit and I can't find what the paradigms that are so diametrically different are. I see the list of projects but I don't see a choice as stark as the one Bruce is describing. I am probably reading my biases into it, but much of what Bruce is describing is a false choice between European style "das große Projekts" and becoming Birmingham. Stephen Fleming says it much better than I do in "Packet switching always beats circuit switching" which is found here: http://academicvc.com/2007/07/17/packets-beat-circuits/ One of the things that should be on that referendum is a state wide ban on laws limiting small business solutions to transportation. I would rather give small business innovation a chance to solve these problems than a top-down "what works in New York works everywhere" solution.

ScottNAtlanta
ScottNAtlanta

Having read the article at the link you provided, I have to say that's a really bad comparison for several reason. If you had taken time to read all the comments, you'd understand why. The author has some good suggestions, but he cherry pics his facts to suit his premise...which is wrong. He never mentions "park and ride" lots, which are usually full on the north end. Mass transit will never be "door to door" for most people, but by building the infrastructure out you come closer to getting people close enough to make it an option. I wish that people understood not just the benefits of passing this, but the horrid consequences if it does not pass:

"(d) In the event a special district sales and use tax election is held and the voters in a special district do not approve the levy of the special district transportation sales and use tax, the local governments in such special district shall be required to provide a 30 percent match for any local maintenance and improvement grants by the Department of Transportation for transportation projects and programs for at least 24 months and until such time as a special district sales and use tax is approved. In the event the voters in a special district approve the levy of the special district transportation sales and use tax, the local governments in such special district shall be required to provide a 10 percent match for any local maintenance and improvement grants by the Department of Transportation for transportation projects and programs for the duration of the levy of the special district transportation sales and use tax."

So in essence, if we dont pass this TSPLOST then each location that wants any transportation dollars from the state has to come up with 30% matching funds as opposed to 10%