By Maria Saporta
One of the most vocal critics of the Atlanta Regional Commission attended his first board meeting on Jan. 23 as a new board member.
Steve Brown, the recently-named chairman of the Fayette County Commission, was an outspoken critic of last summer’s regional transportation referendum, also known as the T-Splost.
The referendum failed, thanks partly to Brown and the Tea Party’s strident opposition to it and its project list.
On the other hand, the referendum was strongly endorsed by an overwhelming majority of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s board and unanimously passed by the 21-member Regional Transportation Roundtable.
A day after the referendum failed, Brown wrote an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that was highly critical of the process.
Here is an excerpt of that article: “Don’t practice substandard planning. You don’t plan in this order: 1. approve the list of projects; 2. conduct a study on the list, and: 3. approve a regional governance structure over the list. The methodology employed by the ARC for modeling, planning and outreach is biased and remarkably unreliable.”
In a one-hour interview after his first ARC board meeting, Brown stood by what he had written. But the deeper the conversation went, it was apparent that Brown is a complex, unpredictable and hard to define leader in the region’s political landscape.
For example, Brown strongly objected to the list of transit projects included in the referendum saying they could not be built in the 10-year timeframe, that the proposed funding for transit would not cover the costs of building out the system or the costs of operating it after the first 10 years in operation.
Brown said he was concerned about “how you were going to fund an expanded transit system if we can’t afford the transportation system we have today.”
And then Brown quickly points out what appears to be a contradiction.
“I’m probably the only ARC board member who rides MARTA to the meetings,” Brown said, adding that he drives to the College Park station and rides MARTA to the Five Points Station. “It’s more effective for me.”
He goes on to say that he has “a lot of sympathy for MARTA. You’ve got to do it in the most cost-effective way possible.”
At the same time, Brown said he is working to have Fayette County withdrawn from the long-range regional transit plan known as Concept 3.
“We don’t want to be in a regional transit plan,” Brown said. “We are working Fayette County out of Concept 3. We don’t want to be part of a system that doesn’t benefit Fayette County.”
And he went on to say that because Fayette County is more low-density and rural than much of the Atlanta region, Brown said Fayette is having “the discussion of whether it’s worth our being in the Atlanta Regional Commission.”
Having Brown on the ARC board will be fascinating to watch, although other ARC board members are giving him the benefit of the doubt.
“I know there are people who are worried,” Brown said about his fellow ARC board members. “I’m going to bring well-researched, well-thought-out opinions to ARC. I’m not going to support a model or a function of ARC that I don’t believe in.”
Tad Leithead, ARC’s board chairman, said that up to now Brown has been “open-minded” about the organization.
“So far, I haven’t observed that there is a problem,” Leithead said. “He may bring a new perspective that is helpful to us. It’s my expectation that his role on the board will be an asset.”
Mike Bodker, mayor of Johns Creek in North Fulton, remembered having an unfavorable opinion of ARC when he first joined the board.
“Knowing what I know today and knowing what I didn’t know back before I was on the ARC board, I can see where one could draw similar conclusions to Chairman Brown,” Bodker said. “I look forward to Chairman Brown’s involvement on the board and to see how his opinions evolve as he gains more knowledge about the ARC and its purpose.”
Brown, however, said he already knows plenty about the ARC because of various roles he’s had in the region, including being mayor of Peachtree City and being one of the first chairs of the Metro Atlanta Mayor’s Association (MAMA).
While he embraced the T-Splost as being “the first legitimate discussion on transportation that we’ve had in 35 years,” Brown went on to list his problems with the project list and the referendum.
“Biting off an entire region and swallowing it at one time is not the right way to go for the region,” Brown said.
Instead, Brown would like to see counties within the ARC create sub-regions to work on their transportation issues. He points to a project he’s been pushing — the interchange at State Road 74 and Interstate 85 in Fairburn as an example. The proposed project has been endorsed by Fayette, Coweta and Fulton. (By the way, it was on the T-Splost project list).
Brown also favors a fractional sales tax where counties would not have to pass an entire penny sales tax. For example, a sub-region of DeKalb, Rockdale and Gwinnett could pass a half-penny tax while a sub-region of Atlanta, DeKalb and Fulton could pass another fractional tax.
“I always work for resolutions,” Brown said. But then he also added one of his refrains: “Don’t trust government, and especially don’t trust Steve Brown.” And about ARC planning for the entire region, Brown said: “Central planning didn’t work in Russia.”
But then he adds that one of metro Atlanta’s major problems has been that it has not linked land planning and transportation together.
During the referendum, Brown upset several regional leaders when he questioned the professionalism of ARC’s staff and the work they produced.
“I don’t blame the staff for any of this,” Brown said. “The staff is doing what they’re told to do.”
It may be wishful thinking, but Leithead summed up Brown’s role on the board this way: “Everything that I’ve observed about Steve is that he’s eager to become a positive factor on the ARC board.”
No matter what, it will be fascinating to watch.