By Guest Columnist EGBERT L. J. PERRY, chair and CEO of the Integral Group
In the end, the Atlanta region’s utter disapproval of the T-SPLOST referendum on July 31may have been because the transportation initiative was a mish-mash of parts, without any coherent purpose.
Even those who supported it – like me – could view it only as a meager first step in transportation planning. Voters regarded T-SPLOST as devoid of real solutions to the paramount problem in Georgia: transportation. Many have also suggested that they did not trust the process, leadership and the ultimate list of projects.
Rather than bold leadership suggesting viable alternatives to our transportation dilemmas, there was no cohesive plan or vision. Every little neighborhood, town, city, county and region squabbled among themselves hoping they’d get more of the pie. Transit was pitted against roads, urban against suburban, race against race.
Many voters – and I’d argue most voters – want regional plans. They know that we can’t “fix” our way out of our transportation problems by doing it one small project at a time. That’s what they said was wrong with T-SPLOST. It is a fact that we will fail as a city, a region and a state if we pursue a fragmented approach.
Ironically, the outcome on T-SPLOST vote didn’t produce winners and losers. There are only losers.
Every day we do not deal aggressively with transportation — and do so in disciplined, comprehensive, regional ways – we lose ground in the race to be most competitive.
Some of that ground can never be regained. Companies make their plans years and decades in advance, and when they look at Georgia today, they’re increasingly writing us off as a great place to do business and create jobs.
Ultimately, if we do nothing or if we continue in a politicized, fragmented way, Georgia will be out of the game. We will be little more than a sleepy Southern town. We will not be a great global city.
As I write this, Gov. Nathan Deal, who wasn’t responsible for T-SPLOST, has moved to the front. With the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Atlanta Regional Commission playing advisory roles, at best, Gov. Deal has said there will be no second referendum and that transportation planning now will be firmly under his control.
If a history is written of Deal’s administration in a decade or two, this will have been a critical and defining period. If he views the T-SPLOST defeat as a flawed “what,” then the conclusion will be that Georgians, particularly Atlantans, aren’t willing to support and pay for transportation infrastructure.
Regional planning will be absent, and Georgia will truly become a backwater state. In that scenario, the true victors in the referendum will have been Atlanta’s and Georgia’s competitors. These rivals had every reason to celebrate the T-SPLOST debacle – their belief is that Atlanta is destined to lose its place as the commercial capital of the South.
On the other hand, Deal has an opportunity to become one of Georgia’s greatest governors. He can understand that T-SPLOST was a failure of “how”: How not to plan and how not to galvanize a state.
Deal can use the power of leadership and develop a plan for all of Georgia. It won’t contain everything each citizen wants, but there is already a consensus on the necessity to move forward. Implementing the plan will be a difficult task. Ironically, rival groups that favor roads and transit nonetheless come to the same bottom line – it will take as much as $50 billion to address the state’s transportation dilemma.
Moreover, in light of the existing financial strain on local governments and in order to regain lost ground, public/private partnerships should be an essential part of any future strategy.
Yes, there is a minority of people in Georgia who are against everything, especially taxes. There is, however, a much larger group of Georgians who embrace a business-savvy progressive future for the state, where we can emerge as one of the true global cities.
Unfortunately, many of the latter group of people, too, said “no” to the T-SPLOST – but only because they viewed the list as jumbled and missing significant projects. Thus, Tuesday was a defeat of the “how the plan was conceived,” not of “what it was addressing.”
If the governor is discerning, he’ll see the distinction. He’ll understand that the “no tax ever” crowd will consign Atlanta to a future with little wealth, little business and little future. We’ll grudgingly look to cities like Charlotte, Miami and Houston as the economic powerhouses of the South.
Gov. Deal, if he is a wise governor, will listen closely to all the viewpoints in the state. Rather than a piecemeal approach to transportation planning, the state needs a unified vision to reach the goal of an efficient, comprehensive transportation system.
At its core, T-SPLOST asked us to look at the wrong end of the telescope. Rather than seeing the big picture of a world in which we can engage and prosper, it asked that we focus on the miniscule needs of each local region within the state.
With the fractious and fractured planning of T-SPLOST, even if the measure had passed, we’d still be behind those regions in the United States that understand what it takes to win the jobs war. They made their transportation decisions over a decade ago and are winning the race today. To appreciate this, we only need to visit states like Virginia, Oregon, Colorado, and Maryland.
Economic development experts will tell you that, for the South to be competitive with other regions, we urgently need rapid, efficient transportation systems that link neighborhoods to cities, cities to regions, and regions to other regions.
Assimilating neighborhoods with the economic spines of an area, integrating the flow of passengers and cargo among cities, and connecting regional transportation pipelines isn’t visionary thinking — it’s necessary thinking. To win the jobs war, we need that thinking, and we need it applied to public policies.
Our goal should not be competing among areas of Georgia. Nor should our economic foes necessarily be Charlotte, Miami, New Orleans and Birmingham. The leadership of Georgia, particularly the governor, must see other regions of America and the world as the real competition. With that in mind, we should chart transportation strategies that strengthen the region. Once those strategies are perfected, we can see logical networks moving down the scale of priorities.
This is now Gov. Deal’s game, his chance to lead, to be a historic governor. We need a well-conceived, superbly crafted plan to make Georgia the economic wellspring of the South. If the governor leads us on that path, the state will follow.
In addition to being CEO of the Integral Group, Egbert L. J. Perry is chair of the Atlanta Life Financial Group; chairman the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Urban Researh; and chair of Central Atlanta Progress. Perry also was recruited in 2009 to join the board of directors of Fannie Mae to help reform the mortgage giant.