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Thought Leader Transit

A tribute to Cheryl L. King; An early architect of Atlanta regional transit, devoted friend, mentor, and culinary queen

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By Lyle V. Harris

Cheryl Lynn King was a bona fide transit champion in metro Atlanta way before it was trendy. Twelve years ago, her professionalism, pragmatism, and passion helped forge a visionary blueprint to connect the sprawling region with a seamless network of buses, trains, and streetcars.

Insiders say that one of the notable byproducts of King’s trailblazing leadership is the Atlanta-region Transit Link (ATL) – a new agency with a broad, long-range mission that’s just getting underway.

Although ATL’s existence validates much of King’s legacy, it’s heartbreaking she’s not here to witness the budding fruit of her labors.

Battling mounting health challenges in recent years, King passed away on November 16, 2018, in her hometown of Winston-Salem, NC at the age of 65.

While there’s still much work to do in her absence, King’s close circle of friends, former colleagues, and mentees is celebrating her life and the invaluable contributions she made to advance regional mobility in metro Atlanta.

Those of us who knew her personally will always remember the infectious smile, mischievous sense of humor and, of course, made-from-scratch culinary creations that were her trademark.

A whiz in the kitchen, King was also the undisputed queen of red velvet cakes.

She was also a devout Christian with an abiding faith whose life was well-lived, according to those who knew her best.

After graduating from Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, King earned her master’s degree from Ohio State University. As a certified planner, King spent much of her career on various public and private sector transit projects in San Diego, Los Angeles, Houston, and Florida.

While working at Wilbur Smith Associates, a transportation consulting firm with offices in Atlanta, King was tapped in 2006 for a high-profile job: Staff director of the Transit Planning Board, a newly minted agency housed at the Atlanta Regional Commission’s headquarters.

King’s selection for the prestigious, two-year assignment was seen as a pivot point, a defining moment in metro Atlanta’s car-crazy culture. As reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in August 2006:

“The 18-member Transit Planning Board, made up of the region’s political and transportation leaders, began meeting in February to develop a plan to handle metro Atlanta’s transit needs. The group also has been charged with finding a new source of funding to help shore up the region’s cash-strapped transit agencies and to fund new initiatives. Ultimately, the planning board could give way to a regional, umbrella transit agency that could dole out funds, start new service and oversee existing transit operators.”

Paul Grether, a junior staffer at MARTA during that time, remembers vividly how King’s gritty determination and unwavering integrity prevailed despite daunting obstacles for the TPB.

“There was a great deal of uncertainty, mistrust, and rivalry between the state, the region, and MARTA that clouded any cohesive regional transit investment planning and service coordination,” said Grether, now vice-president of operations for the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) in Cincinnati.

“Cheryl recognized that there were some ideas that I, an entry-level MARTA employee (and lifelong transit advocate), could implement to add value to the TPB process. Rather than taking credit, she became my advocate and always had my back. Cheryl helped us do great work at the TPB which laid the groundwork for what is now the Atlanta Transit Link.”

John Crocker, another young MARTA planner who worked alongside King at the TPB, amusingly recalled how she maintained her composure, especially during tough times:  

“When we were holding the public meetings [for the TPB] in 2008, we had the City of Atlanta meeting in the auditorium of the library downtown,” said Crocker who now works for a regional office of the Federal Transit Administration.

“One of the advocacy groups was out in force and criticizing the TPB and some of the speakers were quite, um, spirited. Cheryl doesn’t suffer fools, but she just stood calmly on stage and listened to them with an engaged look on her face. The next morning, I asked her how she remained so calm. She looked at me a said; ‘When I’m in those types of situations, I listen. But in my head, I go someplace nice like the shoe department at Neiman Marcus. So while someone is yelling and making a fool of themselves, in my mind, I’m shopping for cute shoes.’”

After much cajoling and scrapping for two years, King and her team in 2008 unveiled Concept 3, a bold $50 billion plan to transform and improve transit in metro Atlanta by 2030.

To this day, updated versions of Concept 3 remain central to regional planning and policy-making and stand as the foundation upon which many of metro Atlanta’s most significant, future transit projects may be built.

Once her TPB stint ended, King was hired to run MARTA’s planning department by Beverly Scott, the transit agency’s then-GM/CEO.

King’s early tenure coincided with the start of the Great Recession, which forced MARTA to furlough staff and make significant, and unpopular reductions to its bus service.

“Cheryl was always the consummate planning professional with the courage to speak the truth, but always as a servant-leader and never looking for accolades,” said Scott who now runs a consulting firm.

“I want to recognize and thank Cheryl for the extraordinary service that she provided during her tenure at MARTA. She had to help navigate through the height of the economic downturn while continuing to set the groundwork for a future Renaissance. It was no easy street, but Cheryl and her team rose to the occasion.”

Scott relied so heavily on King and her staff for technical guidance that she had t-shirts emblazoned with the planning department’s in-house catchphrase: “We got this.”

As an African-American woman in an industry long dominated by white men, King devoted her time and experience working with organizations such as the Conference Of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO) and the Women in Transit Seminar (WTS) which named her “Woman of the Year” in 2010. She was also cited by the Georgia Department of Transportation as a woman who had made great contributions to the transportation industry.

“She was one of the toughest people I ever met until I really got to know her and found out what a loving, caring and sharing person she truly was,” said Ted Basta a former member of Scott’s executive team at MARTA. “Cheryl was professional in every sense of the word but I would never want to get on her bad side!”

Despite her hectic schedule, King also befriended and mentored a host of young people who trusted her wisdom and flourished under the warmth of her generous spirit.

Tonya Saxon will never forget the first time she met King.

“We were at a conference and Cheryl was dressed in all red with red boots,” said Saxon who works at MARTA. “When Cheryl’s bio was read, they mentioned she was from Winston-Salem. I immediately introduced myself after the program and told her I was from there as well. Shortly afterward, Cheryl became the assistant general manager of planning at MARTA and our paths crossed again. When she saw me, she smiled and said ‘Hey, Home Girl!’ and my name changed.”

When King’s health began to decline, Saxon would often drive her back home to Winston-Salem and had remained in touch with her.

“Cheryl was a huge supporter of my professional development and I am forever grateful for the time we spent together,” Saxon said.

Among those who cherished King is Deandrea Thornton, whose mother Toni Thornton works in MARTA’s planning department. King embraced him as a teenager and always treated him as if he was her own.

“Ms. King was an inspiration anytime we had the chance to talk,” Thornton wrote of their impromptu mentoring sessions in her office.

“It was surprising to me how approachable she was considering her status. She always wanted to talk with me about my future and my dreams. She would force me to come up with goals and we would then start to discuss how I would reach these goals. She was a strong, kind person who wanted nothing more than to see the people around her be successful. I feel that this quality about Ms. King is what made her a special person in my eyes. I am thankful for all the wise words and encouragement she brought me. I’m sad to hear of her passing, but I’m happy to say that I had the pleasure of knowing her. Ms. King will truly be missed.”

We all miss you, Cheryl. Rest peacefully in the knowledge that, because of you,  Metro Atlanta is moving in the right direction and is a better place. Thank you and Godspeed.

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