Gov. Deal’s choice — lead in helping make metro Atlanta a global city or let it regress into a small Southern town

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.

Egbert L. J. Perry

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.

34 replies
  1. karinb201 says:

    The problem with the TSPLOST was as much about the “who.” Those who would benefit specifically were special interests, a few who wanted to prosper even more at the expense of many. The corporate-catering airport that wants runway lights. The cash-rich Emory, which wants more students. The private developers of City Hall East that wants greater access to its ill-located mega-project. Those are but three examples of the special interests who had their sights set on everyone else’s wallet to pad their own. THAT was the problem of the TSPLOST. Report

  2. cityzen says:

    Is transportation the paramount problem of Georgia?  Weak K-12 education seems a far more fundamental economic disability.
    Suburban sprawl is a choice made decades ago.  Not even $50bn is likely to fix it and if folks are tired of it they can continue to move in town.  But metro sprawl is not a big problem for the City of Atlanta’s economy.  We have huge carrying  capacity to absorb more urban residents, in terms of both land and transit.  Rather than making sweeping assertions that harm the city’s economic image, let’s focus on the ease of getting around town and to and from the airport. Get MARTA tightly run and funded adequately.  Synchronize the traffic signals at long last. And forget throwing money at streetcars that solve no known transportation challenge.Report

  3. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    {{“Gov. Deal’s choice — lead in helping make metro Atlanta a global city or let it regress into a small Southern town”}}
    Right now, Governor Deal is just concerned with his basic political survival, something that is far from a given after his political support of a substantial tax increase that would have given money to the City of Atlanta and MARTA, something that is considered sacrilegious in the very conservative political, social and cultural circles that dominate the Republican Primary that decides statewide elections these days, the Republican Primary that Deal must survive if he wants to remain in the Governor’s Mansion.
    At this point, if Governor Deal draws an electable challenger, it is very conceivable that he may not survive the 2014 GOP Primary as any potential challenger will more than likely be one who is politically to right of Deal and will run on a very low tax, ultraconservative platform that will be very hostile to transit and the needs and wants of anyone or anything even remotely affiliated with the left-leaning political, social and cultural scene that dominates inside of I-285. Report

  4. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    {{“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.”}}
    …Amongst other reasons.Report

  5. sab says:

    Excellent!  I have been saying for years Atlanta has to decide if it wants to be a big country town or a cosmopolitan city.  I feel as if I have been vindicated.  Barnes would have taken on the transportation mantle had he gotten a 2nd term (although, noting a post from one of the other commenters, that may be why he DIDN’T get a second term).  I hope your article is read by all of the decision makers and hard but brave choices are made. However, with the trend leaning towards everyone creating their own little fiefdom (Brookhaven just became another little city), a regional system with ALL parties at the table working together seems to be a pipe dream.Report

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      It’s not necessarily just the City of Atlanta or the Atlanta Region as a whole that is the problem.
      It’s our lack of a competent, coherent, sane, ethical, relatively well-adjusted state government that either refuses to or is just downright not capable of engaging in the simplest most basic acts of transportation planning as it pertains to the nearly 30-county Atlanta Region and its nearly six million inhabitants that is the REAL problem.Report

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      And Roy Barnes did take on the transportation mantle when he was Governor, he just took it on in a disasterously wrong way by backing a terribly unpopular road in the Northern Arc instead of working to establish critically-needed regional commuter rail lines to anchor the regional express commuter bus service that he got the ball rolling on by establishing GRTA whose GRTA Xpress regional commuter buses are in danger of ceasing operations and dumping what could be upwards of 10,000 single-occupant vehicles onto the already heavily-congested roads of Metro Atlanta next summer because the State Legislature made GRTA Xpress funding contingent upon the passage of the wildly-unpopular T-SPLOST which went down to severe defeat last week.
      On another note, our ever-so-loopy State legislature also made already meager road construction funding contingent upon passage of the wildly-unpopular T-SPLOST and built in very-severe penalties to road construction funding in the T-SPLOST in the event that the T-SPLOST would be defeated, so go figure…Report

    • TylerBlazer says:

       @vote no tsplost The fuel tax in the state of Georgia is legally bound to fund road/bridge projects – nothing else. So there would be no increase of funding for pedestrian, bicycle, train, or other transit projects just by simply doubling the fuel tax.Report

  6. Rob Augustine says:

    SAB, I think you miss the point on your comment about the new City of Brookhaven. It is not, and never has been the fault of cities, or the existence of cities that has created fiefdoms that prevent progress. Rather it is the fact that big county governments have largely supplanted local constituencies as well as the City of Atlanta as major forces in any efforts. As the counties were ceded all control of zoning, locals lost that control. As the counties developed their own infrastructure and systems, they grew well beyond Atlanta in size and influence. This is part of the regional problem – too many big governments doing their own thing and too few small cities working together in a regional system. Having many Cities would necessitate regional planning on transportation – big counties don’t require it as they do what they want. This is the other part of the suburbanization of ATL, the demise of downtown, and the ascendancy of the big county governments.

    Anyway, you’ve got big county town here now for the most part. With no regional anything, and as the Last Democrat points out, little help, influence, control, money, or whatever from the State of Georgia. Years ago we talked about changing the constitution as TylerBlazer points out so the fuel taxes could be used for other projects besides roads. That went nowhere. Which may be where we are all going. Report

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

       @Rob Augustine
       I think that we may actually be moving away from dependence on the gas tax to fund roads as the gas tax, even if substantially increased, does not come anywhere near close to funding the needs of the existing road network, not to mention trying to stretch the gas tax to fund both roads and transit.
      If anything, instead of continuing to be dependent upon the increasingly inadequate revenues from the gas tax, in the long run we are likely headed towards self-funded transportation infrastructure where roads are funded with distance-based user fees on major roads, thoroughfares and a combination of distance-based user fees and zone-pricing, private funding and Tax Increment Financing on transit lines.Report

      • Atlanta Bystander says:

         @The Last Democrat in Georgia  Why is Atlanta the only city that doesn’t offer transportation to the baseball stadium?  Does anyone notice the traffic on 75 before a game?Report

        • Atlanta Bystander says:

          @Burroughston Broch @Atlanta Bystander @The Last Democrat in Georgia and this is exactly why we fail. This whole TSPLOST has been a sham. Report

        • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

           @Atlanta Bystander
           Well, MARTA does offer transportation directly to and from the baseball stadium in the form of the Braves’ shuttle between Underground Atlanta and Turner Field which was recently reinstated after about a year of absence, an absence which meant more cars on an increasingly very road space-limited I-75/I-85 Downtown Connector.

        • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

           @Atlanta Bystander
           It should also be noted that Atlanta is not the only major city with rail transit service that does not offer rail transit service directly to and from its major-league baseball stadium or to all of its major-league sports stadiums.
          There are many major cities, mostly automobile-oriented, but also a few transit-heavy cities, that don’t offer direct rail transit service to and don’t have rail transit stations directly at their major-league baseball stadiums or all of its major-league sports stadiums and have to provide “last-mile connectivity” between the closest rail transit station and the stadium by way of a shuttle bus.
          One of the main reasons why there is not direct rail transit service to the Braves’ games is that the site on which Turner Stadium sits is immediately adjacent to the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium (where both the Braves and Falcons played before the construction of the Georgia Dome which is almost immediately adjacent to a MARTA station that also serves Philips Arena).
          The construction of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium predated the operation of the MARTA heavy rail transit system by about close to 15 years as Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was finished in about 1965-66 while the first stretch of MARTA heavy rail line did not become operational until about at least 1979-80. 
          The MARTA heavy rail system also had to stick somewhat as closely as it could to the existing freight rail corridors that the State of Georgia owned where there was the existing right-of-way available to construct both the North-South and East-West heavy rail lines.
          The N-S heavy rail line had to be lined up to not only to run in the existing freight rail corridors both north and south of town with the Peachtree Street corridor lined up in-between through Downtown and Midtown so that Buckhead, Midtown, Downtown, the Atlanta University Center and the Atlanta Airport all lined up perfectly by way of the existing freight rail right-of-ways and the Peachtree Street corridor.Report

        • Atlanta Bystander says:

          @The Last Democrat in Georgia I believe that this is one of the endemic issues in the whole transportation issue. As long as we are not willing to push the envelope with BIG ideas, we will be mired in this issue for years. The TSPLOST has exposed many of our politicians and many believe that unless we can really push forward with real solutions that will truly make a difference, we will start do die on the vine. Report

        • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

           @Atlanta Bystander  @The
           I completely agree, the only thing is that the Atlanta Region has already been mired in the transportation mobility issue (or the increasing lack of it) for many years.
          The Atlanta Region started getting very-negative attention from the national media almost a decade-and-a-half ago for its inefficient land-use patterns (overall exceptionally low-density sprawl which leads to automobile-overdependency) and its crippling traffic congestion and gridlock.

  7. Burroughston Broch says:

    Assuming that whatever the Governor does will require voter approval, success will depend on local political and community leaders. To increase the odds in metro Atlanta, we need a more reasonable and skilled bunch than we now have.
    First place to start is to get the Metro Atlanta Chamber out of the process. I have never seen a more ham-fisted bunch, with all of the finesse of a punch in the mouth. I thought that they might learn something from the Atlanta Public Schools test cheating debacle, but I was wrong.Report

    • ScottNAtlanta says:

       @Burroughston Broch Problem there is that he will not need any voter approval…until his reelection attempt…so any meaningful transportation planning is screwed…anyone remember Concept 3?  That was a comprehensive plan undertaken by the whole region…so I dont buy this “no vision”…there has been plenty of vision just no implementationReport

  8. ScottNAtlanta says:

    I think Gov NO Deal has delivered his answer…Its all MARTA’s fault and MARTA should be punished.  This is total crap.  It should be treated as such.  As for why MARTA has not expanded since the North Point station…I found this on Wikipedia:
    The current 1% sales tax was set to be reduced to 0.5% in 2032. In early 2007 MARTA made a request to the City of Atlanta, DeKalb County, and Fulton County to seek a 15 year extension of the 1% sales tax from 2032 to 2047, with a 0.5% sales tax from 2047 to 2057.[29] This is the fourth time in its history that MARTA sought the extension, the most recent in 1990.[30] MARTA said the commitment to the tax is needed for the agency to secure long-term financing in the form of bonds to pay for any future expansions to the system.[29] The resolution called for four new routes: bus rapid transit from H.E. Holmes station to Fulton Industrial Boulevard, bus rapid transit from Garnett station to Stonecrest Mall, transit for the BeltLine, and a direct transit link from Lindbergh Center to Emory University (formerly called the “C-Loop”).[31] To approve the tax extension, two of the three government agencies needed to agree to the extension. In March 2007 the City of Atlanta voted 12-1 to approve the extension.[29] In April 2007 the DeKalb County Commission also approved the sales tax extension.[32] Some Fulton county officials opposed the sales tax extension on the basis that the proposed service expansions did not include previously proposed expansion of the North Rail line to Roswell and Alpharetta in North Fulton County.[
    So, as you see…once again…MARTA is unable to obtain long term bonds because the tax’s sunset date is within 30 yrs…problem#1
    The state in its moronic fervor will once again hold MARTA hostage with the 50/50 rule…making it privatize essential services in order to bust unions…even when this makes no sense (PARKAtlanta anyone?) Problem #2
    In blaming MARTA for the failure of the T-Splost Gov NO Deal has shown that he is not a leader but a panderer…trying to deflect blame from himself.  The only problem with that line of thought is that the city overwhelmingly voted for the T-SPLOST ,and it is obvious that most of Dekalb who voted against it  was for reasons not having to do with MARTA governance but with getting access.  No Deal has to know this…if not he is the failure we hoped he would not beReport

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

       I don’t know if Governor Deal is trying to deflect blame from himself so much as he is in a state of political desperation after the overwhelming defeat of the T-SPLOST, a substantial tax increase that he backed, which is a political move that does not always go over all that well within the conservative suburban and exurban circles that decide elections by way of the Republican Primary.
      You’ve got to keep-in-mind that it is Republican voters in the Northern Suburbs and exurbs of the Atlanta Region that will decide whether or not Deal is elected to a second term as Governor (Republican voters in the heavily-populated and politically-powerful arc of Northern suburbs and exurbs that spans through Paulding, Cobb, Cherokee, North Fulton, Forsyth, Hall and Gwinnett counties with substantial input from voters in the conservative South Metro suburban counties of Fayette and Henry).Report

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

       You’ve also got to keep-in-mind that while MARTA rail and bus transit may be something that is not necessarily all that popular OTP, especially within certain very ultra-conservative pockets, rail transit is something that has a substantial degree of growing popularity.
      When Deal said that there would be no expansions to the rail network until there are substantial reforms in how MARTA operates, one sure not necessarily be so sure that he is talking reforms to MARTA in its current form, but he may be talking about a possible state takeover of MARTA by folding its operations into GRTA or somewhere along those lines.Report

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

       Much of everything that Governor Deal says from here until the 2014 elections is going to be aimed at either appealing or pandering to his base of conservative voters in the Northern suburbs of the Atlanta Region, especially in the Georgia 400 North and I-75/I-575 Northwest and I-85/I-985/GA 316 Corridors which are the key to his re-election chances.
      Governor Deal is going to have to go especially hard at the I-75/I-575 NW and GA 400 North Corridors which he lost to Karen Handel in the 2010 GOP Primary because of the reduced support that he figures to get from Gwinnett and the Interstate 85-anchored NE Corridor in the continuing aftermath and fallout from the I-85 HOT Lanes debacle (Gwinnett and Hall counties carried Deal to a razor-thin victory over Handel in the 2010 GOP Primary despite his losing every other county in Metro Atlanta besides Henry to Handel).
      Deal’s desperate seeking of the support of the GA 400 North Corridor is one of the reasons why he dropped the toll from GA 400 before the T-SPLOST vote and is why he talks about the GA 400/I-285 Interchange being the state’s top transportation priority despite there being a severe lack of funding to actually proceed with fixing that troubled interchange at this point in the aftermath of the T-SPLOST debacle.
      Fixing GA 400 would require more than two full years of existing road construction funds for the entire state.
      The failure of the T-SPLOST also threw a huge monkey wrench into Deal’s plans to build HOT lanes on Interstates 75 & 575 through Cobb and Cherokee counties as proceeding with that project would itself require at least one full year of existing road construction funds for the entire state of Georgia.
      That means that we would be talking about three full years of existing meager road construction funding for the entire state of Georgia being used to build two construction projects on the Northside of Metro Atlanta while the rest of the state goes without basic road maintenance for at least three consecutive years.
      …That is something that, even with suburban North Metro Atlanta’s dominance in state politics, just simply is most likely not politically doable, which means that despite Deal saying that those projects are the top transportation priority in the state, for the time being they will likely remain only symbolically as top transportation priorities unless the state can somehow magically make some new source of additional road funding appear.Report

  9. armss says:

    Egbert, Very good article. I think you hit the nail on the head with respect to why the referendum failed and how we should think about transportation at the regional level going forward. Many thanks.Report

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