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Chris Leinberger says region headed backwards with ‘no’ vote on sales tax

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.

Chris Leinberger

“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!”

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.



  1. The Last Democrat in Georgia August 3, 2012 5:15 pm

    With all due respect to Mr. Leinberger and his distinguished real estate development and urban and transportation planning background, I highly disagree with Mr. Leinberger that the rejection of the T-SPLOST referendum is a huge step backwards for the Atlanta Region.
    In fact, one can argue that the rejection of the T-SPLOST referendum by nearly two-thirds of voters in the 10-county region is actually a huge step forward for the Atlanta Region in the long run.
    Mr. Leinberger and much of the outside world perceives the defeat of the T-SPLOST to be a rejection of transit, walkability and density, which is understandable given that is how it was built up to be during a loud, but highly-flawed and highly-misguided expensive $8 million advertising campaign by the powers-that-be in regional and state government and in the business community who over-and-over repeated a very loud and ill-advised message of “Vote for this imperfect, poorly thought-out and fatally-flawed sales tax or see this region go into steep decline and become the next Birmingham!” during what has to be one of the absolute worst P.R. stunts of all time…Talk about boosterism and contempt for the voters gone awry…
    A region does not fix its transportation and land use problems by broadcasting those problems over a loud speaker for all of the world to hear and loudly deriding and belittling to the rest of the world over the same loud speaker those within the region who disagree with what you are saying and what you are doing.
    If the Atlanta Region now has a larger negative perception problem of its transportation woes, its because of the backers of this highly-flawed and somewhat very misguided T-SPLOST campaign who loudly broadcasted and seemingly gleefully played up all of Atlanta’s negative perceptions to the world in attempting to bully the public into voting for this “bull-in-a-china shop” approach to transportation planning and economic development. 
    Reforming transportation and land use in a such a uniquely ultradiverse and complex metropolitan region as Atlanta is not something that can be done with a sledgehammer and a chainsaw as is something that the backers of the T-SPLOST tried to do with their impatient, haphazard and wildly off-target “one-size-fits-all, top-down” approach.
    Reforming transportation and land use in a region like Atlanta that is much more complex than meets the eye of many a outsider, including Mr. Leinberger and even many insiders, is something that must be done ever so delicately with a scalpel and a lasel and lots of patience and understanding, something that clearly was not done in the case of the T-SPLOST backers who, in one terribly ill-advised fell swoop, arrogantly and brutally tried to ram through such obviously piss-poor transportation, economic development and fiscal policy with the brute force of an $8 million brainwashing campaign that, frankly, made a lot of voters sick to their stomachs.
    Reforming transportation and land useReport

  2. The Last Democrat in Georgia August 3, 2012 5:18 pm

    Transportation and land use reform can be done in the Atlanta Region, it’s just that it has to be done with care and precision, NOT with the brute force, arrogance and comtempt for the voters that the backers of the T-SPLOST so proudly displayed during their $8 million propaganda campaign from hell.Report

  3. The Last Democrat in Georgia August 3, 2012 5:39 pm

    Make no mistake, there were quite a few Metro Atlantans who voted against the T-SPLOST because of its (modest, if not misguided) transit component, but there were a heck of a lot more who voted against the T-SPLOST because to them, the T-SPLOST appeared to be nothing more than a government-backed stimulus program that would give public money to the same people who have benefitted so much personally from making Metro Atlanta into the overbuilt, overdeveloped and sprawling auto-overdependent mess that has become.
    The defeat of the T-SPLOST was not a vote against transportation and more efficient land use patterns.
    The defeat of the T-SPLOST was actually a vote against and a very strong rebuke against the status quo of automobile-overdependent sprawl and overdevelopment as one statement that was commonly uttered by many Atlantans, both in the much more liberal urban core inside of I-285 and the much more conservative suburbs and exurbs outside of I-285 was the opinion that “More roads will only lead to more traffic”.
    The “More roads will only lead to more traffic” line was one that I heard in places that are as ultraconservative as Fayette County in the south (which is a suburban county that wants to retain its exurban-to-rural feel for as long as possible) and Cherokee County in the north (Cherokee County is especially sensitive to development issues as the county has many heavily-wooded hilly to mountainous areas and a exurban-to-rural nature that many in the county would like to preserve for as long as they can with their “Where the metro-meets-the-mountains” slogan).

  4. The Last Democrat in Georgia August 3, 2012 6:06 pm

    The “More roads will only lead to more traffic” line was also one that I heard uttered in counties that are in an advance state of transition from suburban to urban, like heavily-populated Cobb and Gwinnett counties, two counties which have experienced firsthand the results of too much overdevelopment and sprawl.
    And the “More roads will only lead to more traffic” line was especially uttered by those who live within I-285 and are voraciously hungry for more and improved transit options and where there is also a history of the local activism leading the way to take down what has been some of the largest roadbuilding proposals in state history as it has been pro-transit Intown activists, like Colleen Kiernan of the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club who has been a frequent contributor to this site and warned of the perception amongst voters, both inside and outside I-285, that the T-SPLOST was a roadbuilding-heavy initiative, who lead the way in the defeat of the proposals to extend I-675 through town to GA 400 and the defeat of the I-485 Stone Mountain Freeway through the historic neighborhoods of Intown East Atlanta during the Freeway Revolts of the 1960’s and ’70’s.
    Pro-transit Intown activists also combined with very conservative and libertarian interests in the OTP suburbs and exurbs to defeat the very-unpopular proposed Outer Perimeter/Northern Arc back in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s out of objections that the $2 billion that would be spent on the proposed road would be better spent on transit for the city and the suburbs and exurbs ($2 billion that ironically has yet to be spent on transit for the city and ‘burbs even a decade after the resounding defeat of and cancellation of that massive roadbuilding proposal).
    And it was a similar coalition of pro-transit Intown interests and anti-overdevelopment OTP suburban and exurban interests who combined together this time to lead the way in the defeat of the T-SPLOST, whose road construction proposals, with a few notable exceptions (like the Sugarloaf Parkway Extension that was proposed to be built with T-SPLOST funds in the abandoned right-of-way of the highly-contentious Northern Arc), were admittedly somewhat modest IMHO (modest by the standards of a Texas, Florida or North Carolina, states who a heckuva lot more new roadbuilding than Metro Atlanta or Georgia could even dream of), but were perceived to the public to be a giveaway of public money to roadbuilders and developers who would make money off of making traffic worse. Report

  5. The Last Democrat in Georgia August 3, 2012 6:13 pm

    In a region that is as diverse and complex as Metro Atlanta, there were quite a few layers to the resounding defeat of the T-SPLOST referendum, maybe Mr. Leinberger should dig much deeper to find out the REAL reasons why the T-SPLOST was an extremely poor fit for Metro Atlanta from the jump instead of just making false and harmful blanket statements based upon pre-existing shallow assumptions.Report

  6. Burroughston Broch August 3, 2012 9:28 pm

    Maria, Mr. Leinberger is a national real estate developer with Atlanta connections, and you portray him as “the outside conscience for metro Atlanta”? Do you really believe that we your readers are that naive? Real estate developers stand shoulder to shoulder against everyone else except fellow real estate developers; then they cut each others throats for a deal. Mr. Leinberger stands to benefit financially if the past real estate development frenzy re-kindles in Atlanta, so he is not objective. Plus, like the metro Atlanta leadership that pushed T-SPLOST, he refuses to acknowledge the real reasons for their overwhelming defeat.
    Listen to The Last Democrat in Georgia’s points – they are right on target.Report

    1. The Last Democrat in Georgia August 3, 2012 11:02 pm

       @Burroughston Broch
       Cool, thanks Mr. Broch.Report

  7. NicholasJohnathanMulkey August 4, 2012 3:08 pm

    I agree! Atlanta, Fulton, Dekalb and possibly Clayton and so forth need to come together and cut gwinett and cobb out of the loop.  If they want to stay in traffic for hours let it be their problem.  Solidify the growth centrally, and begin to grow the south of the region.  Regardless of everything the truth of the matter is, if you want to solve traffic issues you must give people other options than road.  Research has shown this time and time and again.Report

    1. Burroughston Broch August 4, 2012 3:22 pm

       @NicholasJohnathanMulkey  The growth in the north metro area occurs for reasons other than MARTA rail, so why do you think that MARTA rail extension in the south metro area will foster growth there?  If you believe that MARTA rail fosters growth, show me growth anywhere around MARTA rail except for the Red line.Report

      1. The Last Democrat in Georgia August 4, 2012 7:48 pm

         @Burroughston Broch  @NicholasJohnathanMulkey
         I agree that the growth in North Metro Atlanta occurs for reasons other than proximity to MARTA rail which does not run much beyond I-285 in most cases as the heavily-wooded hilly-to-mountainous terrain of the Northern Suburbs and Exurbs as well as the quality of the public schools in OTP North Metro counties and proximity to major recreational lakes in a landlocked metro area have likely played the most major role in the very-explosive growth of North Metro Atlanta.
        But though they may be somewhat modest and few, there are some examples of growth that has been fostered because of either its close or relative proximity to a MARTA line other than the Red Line.
        Downtown Decatur has experienced some degree of growth around its MARTA station which was recently restructed to better fit in with the modest and low-scale historical architecture and dense development of the village-like atmosphere that has become a hallmark of Downtown Decatur over the years.
        There is also the Edgewood Retail District that was recently built relatively close (within walking distance or a very, very short bus ride) to the Inman Park-Reynoldstown MARTA Station on the Blue Line.
        There has been some degree of development that has popped up within walking distance or the distance of a short bus ride of the Brookhaven Station on the Gold Line.
        There is quite a bit of high-density residential and higher-density commercial development that has popped up in the close proximity of the Chamblee MARTA Station on the Gold Line along Peachtree Road and Chamblee Tucker Road in Chamblee.
        There is talk of a major redevelopment of the abandoned General Motors site which is adjacent to the Doraville MARTA Station on the Gold Line.
        There have also been a couple of major high-density residential developments to open recently directly adjacent to the Hamilton E. Holmes MARTA Station on the Blue Line in West Atlanta.   Report

        1. Burroughston Broch August 4, 2012 9:25 pm

           @The Last Democrat in Georgia I  think that you are looking through rose colored glasses in trying to find growth due to MARTA rail.
          Growth inside the City of Atlanta has been minimal at best, with the population increase between 2000 and 2010 being less than 1% and the 2010 population being 15% less than 40 years before.
          I understand that most of the high density residential growth in Chamblee near the MARTA station has been for folks working along Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and Buford Highway.  You won’t find any great increase in MARTA passengers for that station. The 2010 population of Chamblee was 3.6% greater than in 2000.
          There’s been a lot of talk but no action about the former GM site in Doraville. The 2010 population of Doraville was 15% less than in 2010.Report

        2. The Last Democrat in Georgia August 4, 2012 9:51 pm

           @Burroughston Broch
           Like I stated, the examples of growth that is spurred by MARTA may be modest relatively and relatively few, but nonetheless there have been some examples of growth spurred by MARTA.
          It may not be explosive growth, but it is still some degree of growth no matter how modest.
          And even if the City of Atlanta is not growing as fast or even experiencing the type of explosive growth that the Northern suburbs and exurbs have experienced, just the fact that the fact that the City of Atlanta has been gaining population over the past couple of decades after many years of population declines and flight away from the urban core is an extremely-positive development and is a very positive continuing trend, no matter how modest or how early in the trend it may actually be.
          Despite the current overall declining passenger trends for MARTA, and though they may be a very small percentage of the population compared to the overall population of the Atlanta Region, there are still people who prefer to ride mass transit more than they prefer to drive.Report

        3. K3nn3th August 6, 2012 9:37 am

           @The Last Democrat in Georgia I’m agreeing with a Democrat??? 🙂
          You present a great argument. You should have noted the complete transformation of the Lingbergh area as an example of transit oriented development. I lived near Lindbergh about 10 years ago and had to run away. Now I wish I owned property there.
          Metro Atlanta does need road improvements, but it needs transit options too. The luddite position on transit is puzzling, especially when these same people will go to Washignto D.C and rave about transit. I use D.C. as an example because you cannot say they’ve had transit for 100 years like New York or Chicago. Yes, D.C. traffic still stinks but there are options for people to get off of the roads. There has been incredible redevelopment in and around the district. Report

        4. The Last Democrat in Georgia August 6, 2012 10:12 am

           I noted examples of development around MARTA stations on lines other than the Red Line because Mr. Broch had already acknowledged that there was growth around MARTA stations on the Red Line (aka, the North Line) and was asking for examples of growth and development around MARTA stations on the Gold Line (Northeast-South Line) and the Blue Line (East-West Line), no matter how modest.
          Speaking of that, there was also been some relatively modest attempts at new high-density development immediately adjacent to the Ashby Station near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Joseph E. Lowery Blvd in West Atlanta near the Atlanta University Center.
          The recent attempts at high-density residential and commercial development prove that while the future of MARTA may be somewhat shaky, rail-anchored mass transit definitely has a future in the Atlanta Region as there are many suburbs and exurbs well outside of I-285 and the MARTA service area that are planning future high-density development and constructing new development around the sites of future commuter rail stations that are only very-early in the proposal stages at best. 
          And for the record, I am a political independent who is not affiliated with either political party.Report

        5. K3nn3th August 8, 2012 12:36 pm

           @The Last Democrat in Georgia Hey, when one uses a handle like yours it’s hard for anyone to know otherwise. Besides, there’s nothing actually wrong with identifying as a Democrat. Few people agree wholeheartedly with a political party. Independent is often a  cop-out, though sometimes it’s a sincere expression of frustration with the system or available candidates. I’m a frustrated libertarian-leaning little “r” republican, which leaves me voting Republican. I’d be hard-pressed to vote Democrat, except in a local election. Report

      2. The Last Democrat in Georgia August 4, 2012 9:39 pm

         @Burroughston Broch  @NicholasJohnathanMulkey
         Rail transit will foster growth in South Metro Atlanta, but it won’t likely be through extensions of MARTA which is in such dire financial straits that it likely may not make it to the end of decade with the way that things are currently going.
        Rail transit expansion and implementation will especially foster growth in South Metro Atlanta in the
        I-85 Southwest, the US 19-41 South and the I-75 South corridors where regional commuter rail service on existing freight rail right-of-ways that run parallel to heavily-congested commuter highways can provide a commuting and mobility option other than sitting in very slow-moving traffic.
        Though the Southside will likely never experience the type of very explosive growth that the Northside has experienced and may well likely continue to experience, the Southside can benefit from having much lower home and land prices than on the much more severely-overcrowded Northside.
        Meaning that as explosive growth continues to push real estate values up on the Northside and potentially inside of I-285 over the long-term, the Southside will always likely remain a very attractive option for those seeking a more affordable and less expensive lifestyle.
        Long-term affordability is something that South Metro Atlanta can use to its advantage if it wants increase its growth prospects to be more competitive with the heavily-populated part of the metro area above I-20.  Report

    2. Burroughston Broch August 4, 2012 5:21 pm

       @NicholasJohnathanMulkey Some more grist for your mill.
      Clayton was originally to be part of MARTA but declined to support it with taxes (1971 referendum), so it opted out. Clayton also voted against T-SPLOST 54%-46%. What makes you believe that Clayton would support a MARTA expansion?
      For that matter, Fulton and DeKalb also voted against T-SPLOST. T-SPLOST was heavily weighted with MARTA projects. What makes you believe that they would support a MARTA expansion alone?Report

      1. The Last Democrat in Georgia August 4, 2012 6:04 pm

         @Burroughston Broch  @NicholasJohnathanMulkey
         Clayton County didn’t want to pay to keep their own transit service operating in C-Tran, demanding that the state fund and operate it for them instead, so Clayton County could hardly be considered a completely willing partner to fund and operate transit along with Fulton and DeKalb counties.
        In a way it is an example that underscores the importance of having a fare-collection structure that is priced high enough to be able to support much, if not all, of the cost of operations and maintenance instead of being dependent upon either sales tax or property tax revenues to fund the operations of a transit service.Report

    3. The Last Democrat in Georgia August 4, 2012 5:48 pm

       Mr. Mulkey, it is interesting that you make the statement about cutting out Cobb and Gwinnett as inside the city limits of the City of Atlanta was the only place where the T-SPLOST passed by a margin of 57%-43%.
      That means that the City of Atlanta likely would have been much better if they had just had a citywide referendum to fund the Atlanta Beltline and the Peachtree Streetcar and other assorted streetcar lines than by pushing a regionwide referendum in a region with wildly-differing political, social and cultural agendas and a notorious anti-tax and anti-government political streak and an aversion to MARTA where the Atlanta Beltline and MARTA rehab played such a prominent role.
      If the powers-that-be are intent upon funding transportation upgrades with a tax referendum, your suggestion that the City of Atlanta and DeKalb and maybe Clayton have their own referendum might be a better idea than one regionwide referendum.
      Though, it is somewhat very difficult to cut Cobb and Gwinnett out of REAL regionwide transportation planning (not a regionwide T-SPLOST and especially NOT the fatally-flawed one that was just defeated) as both Cobb with its 700,000 residents and Gwinnett with its 825,000 residents and its population seemingly racing towards the one-million mark are two heavily-populated counties that are in an advanced transition from suburban to urban.
      Heavily-populated Cobb and Gwinnett also each straddle one of the busiest superhighways on the entire planet as Cobb straddles the extremely-busy I-75 and anchors the NW Metro Corridor and Gwinnett straddles the extremely-busy I-85 and anchors the NE Metro Corridor.
      The critical importance that Cobb and Gwinnett have to the Atlanta Region with their fast-growing and combined heavy populations of over 1.5 million residents must be taken into account when plotting regional rail transportation plans.
      Unfortunately, since the urban core of the Atlanta Region now sprawls over five counties as opposed to the two (Fulton and DeKalb) that are currently increasingly underserved by MARTA, any regional rail transit solution or plan would require the very heavy involvement of the State of Georgia and regional rail transit just does not seem to be something that they are either willing to do or even be capable of doing at the moment as the state is having enough extremely severe difficulty just simply tending to the road network through the extremely disturbingly troubled Georgia Department of Transportation. Report

    4. The Last Democrat in Georgia August 4, 2012 6:26 pm

       I do agree that there needs to be more of an effort to spur economic growth on the Southside of the Atlanta Region (just ask Henry County, where they are many boosters who, somewhat strangely, have long desired for Henry County to experience the type of heady growth and development that counties like Cobb and Gwinnett have experienced), even though Henry County has grown at a pretty healthy clip over the last couple of decades and is still one of the fastest-growing counties in the entire U.S.
      Though, the Southside will always likely be at a very-substantial disadvantage to the Northside when it comes to economic and population growth because of the heavily-wooded much more hilly-to-mountainous topography of the Northside and its relatively-close position to the foothills and mountain ranges of the heavily-wooded Blue Ridge and Southern Appalachian Mountains, the highly-desirable real estate in, around and between Lakes Allatoona and Lanier and the extreme diversity that has taken hold on the Northside, particularly within Gwinnett County which has quickly grown into one of the most diverse counties in the U.S and one of the most diverse communties on the entire planet. Report

    5. The Last Democrat in Georgia August 4, 2012 7:13 pm

       I also strongly agree that to adquately address traffic issues we must give people options other just driving on an increasingly severely-constrained road network (traffic issues cannot necessarily be solved as even cities with very-heavy transit options still struggle with very-severe traffic congestion, it’s just that at least they have some kind of very heavy transit alternative where one may not necessarily have to sit in gridlock whereas Atlanta does not).Report


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