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.
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.