By Maria Saporta
During the last several months, Chris Leinberger has served as the outside conscience for metro Atlanta.
Leinberger, a national real estate developer who has spent decades observing the rise and fall of the Atlanta region, is a nonresident senior fellow for the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution.
It was Leinberger who declared that “Hot-lanta” was no longer hot. It also was Leinberger who in the 1990s confidently stated that the Atlanta region was the fastest-growing settlement in the history of the world — in terms of land consumption.
And it was Leinberger who earlier this year gave metro Atlanta leaders a list of 10 things it should do to regain its economic prominence — and the first five were to pass the one-percent regional transportation sales tax.
So after the Atlanta region resoundingly defeated the regional sales tax — with a 62 percent “no” vote and a 38 percent “yes” vote, Leinberger had tough words for metro Atlanta.
“Obviously you are going to go backwards,” Leinberger said in a telephone conversation. “With the failure of this referendum, I’m really concerned about the future of Atlanta as a vital economic area.”
Specifically, Leinberger said the healthiest metro areas in the United States today are those that provide a myriad of options for their residents in how they get around and in the kind of communities where they live.
The most vibrant metro areas are those that have “walkable, urban” communities that are served by transit. They are places where people can walk to restaurants, stores, work and parks — minimizing the need for people to get in their cars to get to where they want to go — which in turn reduces the number of cars on the road.
“By rejecting this, the Atlanta region has shown that it is firmly committed to the 1980s economy,” Leinberger said. “Atlanta has soundly voted for driving 30-40 miles a day and to living in large, single-family lots. It’s the same-old, same-old. Atlanta has shown that it firmly wants to be in the 1980s.”
Unfortunately for Atlanta, the young creative class are drawn to cities that provide those walkable, urban areas. And those are the employees that the most prosperous industries — the medical and high-tech fields — need in order to grow.
As Leinberger said, by rejecting the transportation tax, metro Atlanta is “mispositioning itself for the future economy.” That will lead to companies investing in other cities and to the most talented young workers to live in more vibrant communities.
It also is a matter of a community’s willingness to invest in its own future (or not).
“Here you are in a ditch. As a metropolitan economy, you need to make serious infrastructure investments to get out of this ditch,” Leinberger said. “You need that infrastructure boost.”
As he sees it, the region’s focus on traffic congestion was a “short-sighted” one.
“Investing in transportation is a catalyst for economic development,” Leinberger said. “Transportation is not just about widening freeways and getting rid of congestion.”
Now other communities in the country where transportation votes have failed the first time have gone back to the voters to have a new plan passed. For example, in both Denver and Seattle, the votes that failed were for roads and transit; and then when they went back to voters, the plan was almost all for transit. And those votes passed.
And while Leinberger said that those communities have found a way to “get over the objections and try again” — which could be an option for the Atlanta region. But then he put in another dose of reality. “Metro Atlanta and metro Seattle are two different cities,” he said.
The day after the vote, Gov. Nathan Deal declared that there would be no repeat. He basically closed the door on any significant new investments in transportation and even less for transit.
Leinberger said that given the willingness of the City of Atlanta, Fulton County and DeKalb County to invest in transit, perhaps those jurisdictions could come up with a plan to build a “walkable infrastructure” in the core area of the region.
“If the fringe is wedded to a vision of the future that is wedded in the past, they are just going to have to be cut loose,” Leinberger said.
Ideally, the core counties would be given the ability to move independently of the rest of the region and push “for a 100 percent transit sales tax ballot measure.”
Leinberger, who clearly was disappointed with the outcome of Tuesday’s vote, showed that he is an optimist at heart.
Our conversation ended with Leinberger simply saying: “I have not given up on your fair city!”