Hello. Good-bye. Atlantans can only wave as rail car follows the future to Charlotte, NC

Tracks were being laid in front of the Metro Atlanta Chamber this week so Georgians could see an actual light rail car — making a stop in town for a couple of days.

The light rail vehicle, which also can operate as a streetcar, was on its way to Charlotte, N.C. as part of the North Carolina city’s second phase of its public transit system.

The symbolism was eerily ironic. The closest Atlanta was to seeing light rail was a two-day stop for a vehicle headed to our biggest competitor — Charlotte.

Of course Siemens, the German firm that designed and manufactured the light rail car, wanted Atlantans to see what they could have if they got their act together.

Proposals exist. The Atlanta streetcar. The BeltLine. But all those plans are just lines on paper. In Charlotte, permanent rail lines have been built, light rail vehicles have been purchased and transit operations are being expanded.

Pat McCrory, who served as mayor of Charlotte from 1995 to 2009, was in Atlanta this week to participate in a “Sustainable Transportation” program put on by the government of Switzerland (more on that later).

“Every city is going through the same thing,” McCrory told the Georgia audience, mentioning other Southern cities like Nashville. “The (city that) will win this war will be the one that moves the fastest.”

McCrory, a Republican, said public transit received bi-partisan and business support in Charlotte. There was a massive “selling” job to show what Charlotte was “going to look like if we do nothing.”

Because the transit lines were linked to land-use plans, developers were able to see they could benefit from the city’s investment.

McCrory said it’s important that transit is built where it makes economic sense and is part of a transportation network.

“The right is only going to want to build roads. The political left will want to put transit everywhere out of fairness. This is not a fairness issue,” McCrory said. “There needs to be an inter-connected system of sidewalks, bikeways and buses.” Later the mayor said “you can’t do rail alone without the land-use plan.”

McCrory said transit is not a project with a beginning and an end. When Atlanta first built MARTA, it was the envy of the nation. But then, Atlanta stopped investing in transit. But in Charlotte, McCrory said: “We never finish what we started.”

On the same panel as McCrory were several Georgia leaders — Jim Durrett, a MARTA board member who is executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District; former Athens Mayor Doc Eldridge, who is now president of the Athens Chamber of Commerce; and Georgia Sen. Jeff Mullis, who has chaired the transportation committee.

The bottom line — there’s no money in Georgia for transit. There’s not even enough money to support the limited transit systems we currently have. And there’s not the political will among legislators to increase taxes to pay for transit.

“When politicians don’t have the guts to vote for a tax increase, then they let the voters pass a tax increase,” Mullis said.

Even that is on a slow train. Gov. Sonny Perdue has said such a question shouldn’t go before voters until 2012. Remember what McCrory said? The city that builds transit the fastest will win.

Under that scorecard, the United States is behind and Georgia is even farther behind.

In Switzerland, the national policy is to invest in sustainable transportation. Already the Swiss use public transportation for 19 percent of all its trips compared to only 2 percent in the United States. The Swiss traveled an average of 1,307 miles by train in 2007, compared to 1,228 in Japan and 839 in France. In the United States? The average American only traveled 87 miles by train.

The Swiss continue to support investments by rail, and roughly half its transportation budget goes towards public transit.

The Swiss ambassador to the United States, Urs Ziswiler, said there’s a $3 per gallon gas tax that provides revenue for transit. A gallon of gas costs $7.56 in Switzerland, more than twice the cost in the United States. The high cost of gas encourages the use of transit and discourages car and truck travel.

The Swiss currently are building a 35-mile tunnel under the Swiss Alps to connect Zurich to Milan — primarily to shift the movement of freight from trucks to rail. The total project will cost $30.2 billion, and 65 percent of it is going to be paid by a truck tax (a further disincentive to move goods by truck).

According to Swiss officials, the beauty of the truck tax is that it was being paid by trucks traveling from all over Europe. Ambassador Ziswiler said the truck industry strongly opposed the tax, but public support more than made up for that opposition.

Michaela Stockli, an official with SwissRail, showed a slide of all the different modes of rail and public transit that exists in Switzerland — at least a dozen — including tramways, funiculars, light rail, streetcars, trolley buses, high speed rail and so on.

“We have 2 billion passengers a year,” Stockli said of the country with 7.5 million residents. “We do 50 trips per year. Our railway is not only about money. There’s a lot of pride and beauty and emotion.”

She then showed a gorgeous video of trains traveling through the Alps, through cities and throughout beautiful landscapes showing how unobtrusive rail is on the environment.

After that presentation, Georgia State University economist who was moderating a panel discussion, asked those attending the Swiss program on Sustainable Transportation: “Who here has rail envy?”

The crowd applauded.

Ambassador Ziswiler later said Switzerland has had the political will to invest in public transit, and it has been able to pay for it by pricing modes of transportation that it wants to discourage.

Asked about Georgia, Ziswiler said that from what he had heard: “I don’t see the political will.”

So here we are in Atlanta.

The best we can do is have a light rail vehicle on display for two days before it completes its journey to Charlotte, N.C. — a city and a state that enjoys the political will to invest in a sustainable transportation future.

Guess who is winning this competitive war. And guess who’s losing.

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.

42 replies
  1. Alan Yorker says:

    This is a decades old and terribly sad story for all Georgians. The habits of the past are now the chains of the present. Until this changes, we are not viable as a modern and growing city and region. We need political leadership that understands this and has the guts and grit to do something about it. Where is our Moses to lead us out of this gridlock?Report

  2. Chuck Shiflett says:

    Many who favor rail only do so because they hope it will get others off the road so they themselves can continue driving. I want to get in my car, go where I want, when I want without being dependent on some rail schedule. Plus many trips involve groceries, drycleaning, and other purchases which can’t be lugged around on mass transit.Report

  3. JB says:


    If we had a fully flushed out transit system you COULD go where you want, when you want, every few minutes, on transit. As for grocery trips, etc., how do you think the people in DC and NYC live? Most of them don’t have cars. They take their city shopping carts to the market and onto the bus/subway–no big deal. But it requires a decent system, which is what we are sorely lacking in Atlanta.Report

  4. Darin says:

    Chuck — I understand your desire to not be dependent on rail schedules, but my desire (and that of many others) is to not be dependent on cars and to not be tied down to the necessity of car ownership and all of its costs on the individual, the built environment and the natural environment. The necessity of being a car owner is the opposite of freedom to me.

    The issue with rail expansion shouldn’t be centered around the idea of rail alone being a panacea to our transportation problems. Building a widespread diversity in transportation options that exists in a sustainable relationship with land use practices is the key to success.

    Roads, sidewalks, bus lanes, bike lanes and rail lines should all contribute more evenly to the transportation landscape across Atlanta. As of now, car-dependent residential and commercial development patterns are inappropriately dominant here.

    To be competitive with other cities in drawing and keeping the kind of young, talented professionals who are increasingly demanding a lifestyle that is less dependent on car use, Atlanta needs to expand diverse transit options in conjunction with land use patterns to create livable communities for pedestrians. Georgia needs to understand the economic importance of this before it’s too late.

    Being an innovator in transportation policy is hard, but playing catch up is much harder.Report

  5. Dick Hodges says:

    For Georgians truly interested in all apects of transportation challenges facing metro Atlanta and the rest of Georgia, as well as learning about viable solutions, SaportaReports is one of the most knowledgeable and authoritative sources of such information. The coverage of the recent conference sponsored by Switzerland and Georgia Tech, highlighting the excellent Swiss rail capability as an example of how this proven mode of transportation adds to economic progress and improved quality of life, was responsible journalism at its best. One of the messages from the Georgia Tech conference that came through loud and clear is the need for substantial, unified communication programs aimed at the general public, explaining the merits of “balanced transportation”. It was pointed out that significant segments of the population in the U.S. today manifest little understanding of transit issues or are woefully misinformed. Among such “citizens” are far too many in positions of leadership and influence in government, business and the professions. It was suggestd that interested advocates of meaningful progress have to hope for, work for, and vote for, more vision and courage if our area in the 21st century is to continue the growth and progress that was charactistic of metro Atlanta and other parts of Georgia in much of the 20th centuryReport

  6. Mike says:

    Rail schedules?? Are you kidding me? I’ve been taking MARTA from Buckhead to downtown for the past 2.5 years with hardly any problems. I moved to South Buckhead specifically to be near Lindbergh MARTA so I wouldn’t have to deal with traffic and parking downtown. I can’t tell you how much money I’ve saved in terms of gas, wear and tear on the car, etc. I can’t tell you how many wonderful books I’ve read in the past 2.5 years sitting on MARTA. And guess what. During weekdays, trains come an average of every 5-7 minutes except at night, when most people have gone home from work. Miss a train? Another one is right behind. And the free daily parking at Lindbergh MARTA is wonderful. And the monthly MARTA pass I get from work is even better. And the fact I can hold on to my 10-year old MAZDA with 175,000 miles and only use it for weekend trips is great. Wake up and smell the coffee. Traffic here stinks. What a great way to start the day to have a relaxing ride on a subway and read a book.Report

  7. TarHeelBred bleeds TarHeelBlue says:

    Hold on everybody, lets not “run off the rails here” (no pun intended) when it comes to foaming at the mouth for rail. North Carolina is a direct competitor when it comes to jobs, industry and education, so there is something to be said when a rival city like Charlotte invests in a new light-rail system, but by no means is Switzerland anything like Georgia culturally, politically or geographically. Sure, Switzerland is an example of what a rapid transit system should be, but also keep-in-mind that Switzerland is a centuries older small, densely-populated, mountainous landlocked socialist nation that is physically less than one-third the size of the state of Georgia with a lesser overall gross domestic product.

    Switzerland has a different cultural and political mindset which is a lot more conducive to accepting sky-high taxes and lots of government control of the markets to manipulate modes of transportation for public use. On the other hand, the cultural, political and economic atmosphere in the state of Georgia consists a strong libertarian to conservative streak which cherishes low taxes and mimimal government control and regulation of public life and the markets. Taxes increases just to cover the cost of maintaining the current ROAD network aren’t likely to be coming anytime soon, not to mention taxes increases to cover the cost of the pipe dream and public anathema that is mass/public transit in Georgia, especially in the current economic and political atmosphere of tea parties, tax revolts, trillion-dollar bailouts, costly big-government healthcare “reform” and increasingly high unemployment.

    Feel like living on the edge? Become a politician in red-state Georgia, step to a microphone in a front of a camera and tell your constituents that your going to raise their taxes to pay for rail for a bunch of Atlanta liberals and see if you make it out of the building alive? I dare you.

    Georgia won’t even adequately invest time, money or intelligent thought to keep up its increasingly outdated road network and you want them to raise taxes and invest in rail? You must also want hell to freeze over and pigs to fly! LOL!

    Minus the recent economic downturn, Georgia has been for the most part a high-growth coastal Sunbelt state that has attracted an exploding population with relatively nice weather and great location in a highly-traveled corridor while Switzerland enjoys relative isolation at a high elevation in the snowy and jagged Alps of Western Europe. In a comparatively shorter timespan, especially over the last couple of decades of unparalleled boom, people havent been flocking to Georgia to live on top of each other in an overpriced condo on an overcrowed subway line, they’ve been moving here to buy a really big house in a really big yard for a fraction of what it would cost to buy two walls and a toilet in California or New York (those other two walls will cost you extra). That mindset had recently begin to change a little as a market for Northeastern-style rowhouse townhomes and condos had begun to pop up below Appromatox (Northern Virginia)!Report

  8. TarHeelBred bleeds TarHeelBlue says:

    BTW, may I make a few suggestions to advocates of public transportation in Georgia? First of all, if Siemens wants to build railcars and transit lines in Georgia then why dont come down here and cozy up to the lawmakers in the Georgia General Assembly by lobbying them hard (with Grateful Dead tickets, $500-a-plate dinners, hot female escorts, etc) and throwing a few dollars their way like it looks like they have done in states like North Carolina and above on the Eastern Seaboard?

    Second, stop referring to buses and rail as “public transportation” or even “mass transit” and start referring to it exclusively as “RAPID TRANSIT”! Amongst Georgians, a voting populace with a strong libertarian streak and a strong distrust of government, the word “public” conjures up images of poor, disadvantaged mentally-ill people riding a mechanically-deficient outdated bus operated by an incompetent and indifferent “public” entity that offers poor, inefficient and untimely service (in other words, like PUBLIC schools, PUBLIC roads, PUBLIC hospitals, PUBLIC toilet or the way that MARTA is currently perceived amongst members of the Georgian PUBLIC). While the word “mass” conjures up images of force being used by a communist or totalitarian government to forcefully make people share their personal lives, space and worse with lots of other people to whom they are totally unrelated (as in MASS crowds, MASS consumption or MASS murder). These are not images that I’d want to convey to a skeptical public and body politic while trying to sell a critical vision. Refer to buses and rail as “RAPID TRANSIT” instead because it conveys to a skeptical public a more positive image of fast, safe and on-time trains smoothly and quickly getting from point-A to point-B while traffic sits idle of MASSively overcrowded roads.

    Third, stop “lobbying” the Georgia General Assembly by basically begging legislators to unpopularly raise taxes and use dwindling existing public monies to fund what is perceived outside the perimeter for the most part to be an experimental and inefficient urban luxury in the form of public transportation for Metro Atlanta. Instead, lobby the Georgia General Assembly to fund improvements to “RAPID transit” for all of Georgia through the use of user fees to fund a network of bus, light-rail and commuter-rail lines connecting Atlanta and the rest of Georgia like the way toll roads are funded (in other states, mostly). With RAPID TRANSIT USER FEES, only the people who use the infrastructure would pay a premium cost for the infrastructure, a concept that might prove to be much more popular in the reddest of red states where tax-increase proposals of any kind are a big political NO-NO! Plus, with user fees the much-needed infrastructure gets built unlike with proposing funding thru tax-increases which you would probably be waiting for till you turn blue in the face and never get the much needed bus-line, rail-line or new roadway.Report

  9. Blue Cracker says:

    @chuck, et al — when you live in a dense, packed city, many things are delivered. I used to live in a terrible glass shoebox in the sky, ordered my groceries online & had them delivered for the princely sum of $5 more. They’re happy b/c it keeps me out of their tiny, cramped store; they can supply me straight from the warehouse. And the fruit was always good, the ice cream was always frozen -> they didn’t stiff me.
    You just get everything delivered. And end up staying in your own neighborhood a lot, I think.Report

  10. Phil says:

    If living in super densely populated areas where you rely on public transportation is so great, then why do you think people from areas that offer this lifestyle (Northeast and Midwest cities in particular) are moving here (and to other sunbelt cities) by the hundreds of thousands? Riding a train everywhere you need to go is great in theory, but doing this day in and day out makes for an awful quality of life (and I can say after 20+ years of doing such). While it appeals to some (usually those young and single) the vast majority of Americans prefer the independence of the automobile and only take the train b/c it is faster and/or cheaper.Report

  11. Big Daddy says:

    Charlotte is slowly replacing Atlanta as the hub of the Southeast. This city, region and state has been sitting on its you know what for too long. I am starting to hate this city!Report

  12. CPA says:

    Phil, could you please elaborate on your awful quality of life while utilizing rail transit for 20 years, and explain how the rail transit was responsible? Where did you live?

    I have lived or worked in many cities with extensive rail transit systems, including New York, London, Mexico City and Washington, D.C. Not only have I found the transit systems in all of those places extremely convenient, but not having to depend on a car and incur the high costs of auto maintenance actually enhanced my quality of life.

    Here in Atlanta, by contrast, I am forced to endure anywhere from 1 1/2 to 2 hours per day sitting in traffic, because my workplace is not conveniently located near a rail station. Would someone please tell how sitting in gridlock traffic against one’s will constitutes freedom?

    While on the point of freedom, I’ll add that the Georgia Legislature, dominated by rural Conservatives, is directly trampling on our collective freedom by not allowing Atlantans to tax ourselves to fund transportation projects that make sense for Atlanta. Why do Georgia Conservatives insist on Big Government control over local transportation issues?

    All across the nation, the Conservative talking heads and radio loudmouths preach night and day about “smaller government” yet here in Georgia, Big Government has a Tight Grip on local transportation issues.

    Why? Short answer: Georgia lawmakers are in bed with their lords and masters, the roadbuilder executives of Georgia.


    As long as that decades-old cozy relationship between lawmakers and road builders is in place, Georgia will never see progress in the area of rail transit.Report

  13. Darin says:

    CPA, you make a good point. Metro areas in Georgia should be able to tax themselves for the benefit of their particular transit needs. I really want to see this happen. I’ll gladly provide some tax money to see good transit expansion in Atlanta. We need a more level playing field for a range of transportation options — one that includes roads/cars but does not continue the unsustainable level of domination of that transportation type in the city.

    RE: the “decades-old cozy relationship between lawmakers and road builders,” I’m sure that plays a big part in the state’s inability to have, so far, supported continuing transit developments in the metro. But I believe another prime factor is the undeniable anti-urban bias that exists in much of the state outside the large cities.

    This bias comes from an understandable place. Georgia has a long agricultural and rural history. Seeing so much of the state’s economic force change from agricultural to commercial and corporate in the last century gave our historic culture a shock. That kind of change is difficult on a region’s identity.

    But it’s important to allow inevitable changes to not only happen but to help them happen in a positive way that benefits everyone. That’s where smart growth concepts can help. Building sustainable transit and development patterns for Atlanta will, in the end (and after a transition period that will be difficult for many), help a larger group than just urbanites.Report

  14. mike dobbins says:

    Comments on Maria’s latest –

    What is it about common sense that seems so foreign to Georgia’s leaders? Maria’s piece makes clear that transportation cannot be approached as a project contest. Transportation is about systems and networks, connecting people with where they want to go by all modes. Instead, our leaders concentrate on separating modes – roads v transit, for example – and on “my” project v “your” project. The endless pursuit for the “magic bullet” project approach promulgated by both private sector and public sector honchos will never work.

    Thus, the “magic bullet” BeltLine 42 billion transit project at the local level answers no existing transit need nor serves any existing (or even fifteen year) transit purpose. Yet it has already cost well over $100 million dollars, displaced hundreds of families through speculators, and sopped up virtually all of the City’s transportation attention and resources. (In fairness, ConnectAtlanta, which cost a little over $1 million – for the whole city – did advance the idea of transportation as networks interactive with development patterns, but even it swam and continues to swim in the wake of the BeltLine transit chimera).

    At the regional and state level, “project thinking” instead of systems thinking focuses on competing roadway segments, put forward with no analysis of their sustainable development potential or of their impacts on other travel options or modes. And so we have legislators divining lists of projects in beauty contest format. (Again in fairness, the IT3 and its successor studies begin to create a framework for analyzing transportation as a system as well as in understanding its vital link with development investment. And the ARC/GRTA/MARTA Concept 3 for regional transit, now nominally in an implementation phase, begins to sort out how which links in the system might have the best chance of meeting existing and growing travel needs with what levels of feasibility).

    What the Swiss have apparently done, and what Charlotte and more and more other U.S. cities and states are doing, is to absorb the realities (and the common sense) of what transportation does as a comprehensively planned network to connect people in all their varying needs and capabilities with their destinations in a rationally prioritized way. We need to progress beyond our kindergarten tug-of-war projects and proceed to elementary understandings of what transportation is. Reading Maria’s report should be required to graduate to that level.Report

  15. Ray says:

    I want to add a perspective that everyone has lost interest in the past few months: oil. When we come out of this economic mess with the rest of the developed world in about two years, oil will be over $200; perhaps it will be even higher. And when you figure a public transit project at min takes five years to build, we’re three years behind. CLT will take the crown as the new economic hub of the South.

    So what does the rest of Georgia want with keeping Atlanta down? Why is it so important to control the 600,000 residents in center city Atlanta, and the 2 million who commute into the city every day? Why? Let us tax ourselves and move this city forward before it is too late to help our residents live a better life.Report

  16. TarHeelBred bleeds TarHeelBlue says:

    Big Daddy: While Charlotte has made some inroads in its transit planning with the opening of its light-rail line, Charlotte still has a long way to go to catch up with and overtake Atlanta as the hub of the Southeast. Charlotte’s airport, while busy at approx. 30 million passengers a year, is nowhere near as critical as Atlanta’s airport at 80-90 million passengers per year which brings in alot international passengers and industry from all over the world. That’s still no excuse for the state of Georgia investing in virtually no new infrastructure while the population of Metro Atlanta grew by over two million new residents in the 11 years between the end of the ’96 Olympics and the start of the current economic downturn in ’07.

    CPA: While Georgia lawmakers may be in bed with roadbuilders (and anyone else who threw a few dollars and a hot date in high heels their way) that very “cozy” relationship still hasn’t amounted to very many new roads at the being built at the state-level over the past 15-plus years. Most of the roadbuilding projects that have occurred during that time period were smaller-scale maintainance, pavement-replacement and minor improvement projects that were way past due (like the addition of one lane in each direction on GA 400, the very necessary safety improvements at I-85 & GA 316, the roadway rebuilding and shoulder improvements on I-75 in Cobb County and the repaving and so-called improvements on the Downtown Connector in Midtown). Despite the legislature’s familiarity with roadbuilders, compared to other high-growth Sunbelt states like Texas (toll-roads, light-rail), California (public-private tolled lanes and roads), Florida (toll-roads) and even North Carolina (Charlotte light-rail and I-485 Outer Beltway construction, Raleigh-Durham light-rail, toll-roads and I-540/640 Outer Beltway construction and Greensboro I-840 Painter Blvd Beltway construction), Georgia has invested practically nothing in the construction of new infrastructure (a commonly sighted statistic states that Georgia is second only to Alaska in per-capita investments in transportation) in the last decade-plus of exploding population growth.
    Any new roadways that you have seen being built in Metro Atlanta in the last 15 years have more than likely been at the county-level (roads like the Barrett Parkway-extension in Cobb County or Sugarloaf Parkway and Satellite Blvd in Gwinnett County are two good examples of much-needed county-funded and county-built local surface thoroughfares). In the last few years there’s been alot of talk of asking the Georgia General Assembly to pass new laws to allow groups of counties to band together to be able to jointly access new taxes to fund transportation projects with a new constitutional amendment and voter referendum. In theory, Metro Atlanta counties should already be able band together to fund transportation projects on their own merit because there’s no law that prevents each individual county in the metro area from passing its own local option sales tax and directing those proceeds to a regional transportation authority of its choosing for a collectively-funded solution to regional traffic issues. It’s just that the local political leaders in each of those metro counties don’t want to take the political initiative to work with neighboring counties with which they may have major cultural and political differences or seemingly just nothing much in common, not to mention not wanting to take the political heat from local constituencies for being perceived to raise taxes to send outside city and county lines to those unpopular neighbors and local economic competitors. Local political leaders in Metro Atlanta counties would just rather seemingly pass the buck on that issue to political leaders at the state-level, political leaders who are both a combination of unwilling and incapable of solving Metro Atlanta’s transportation ills (remember the $430 million in unpaid invoices found after many years in a desk at the Georgia Department of Transportation?).

    The biggest reason for lack of action on transportation in Georgia while the population has soared through the roof has been a combination of political structure and geographical makeup. The city of Charlotte has been able to act on transportation because almost all of urban Charlotte geographically sits inside of one county, Mecklenburg County with the city of Charlotte as virtually the only major city government in that county and the largest incorporated political entity in the area and with a population of over 600,000 has over one-fourth of the Charlotte Metro total of two-million. The city of Atlanta, meanwhile, is also the largest INCORPORATED entity in its respective metro area, but doesn’t even quite have one-eleventh of the much-larger Atlanta Metro total inhabitants with a population of approximately 500,000.
    “Urban” Atlanta (inner-city and suburban) sprawls over parts of ten counties with an “urban-core” of five large counties (Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton, Cobb and Gwinnett) with sharp cultural and political differences amongst each other (the disagreements between Cobb and Fulton are a prime example) and within themselves (the cultural and political split between North Fulton and South Fulton as well as between North DeKalb and South DeKalb are also quite pronounced). While Fulton has distinct political differences especially between its Northern suburban/exurban region and its southern urban/suburban region, the other four urban-core counties seem to sometimes mimick the actions and functions of an incorporated city and think of and often times seem to think of themselves as their own individual cities and not often enough as part of a larger metro area with the most pronounced and played-up cultural and political divisions being between the more urban inhabitants of the area “ITP” (Inside the Perimeter) and the suburban, exurban and rural inhabitants of the area “OTP” (Outside the Perimeter).
    The State of Georgia, meanwhile, has more counties (159) than any other state east of the Mississippi, a result of the erstwhile county-unit system of politics meant to concentrate power in rural and agricultural areas away from then relatively-urban Atlanta, the vestiges of which still rear their ugly head in present-day state politics.Report

  17. TarHeelBred bleeds TarHeelBlue says:

    BTW, I disagree with many of the posters on this blog that the Atlanta Metro area and the State of Georgia are no longer viable as a growing city and region because of current troubles (transportation and now economic problems swirling around real-estate, construction, etc…). Many of the great cities in American and world history have had rough spots in their history which they had to overcome to realize their full potential. Atlanta is going through a rough spot with transportation, water and its economy right now and getting through these rough patches may require some innovative thinking outside of the box. The traditional way of financing infrastructure improvements through raising taxes may not be financially and politically viable during tough economic times so we may have to come up with more creative ways to get these critical infrastructure improvements financed, built and maintained such as tolls, higher fares and maybe bonds, if possible. I think that this city and region will get it done and when it does it will be bigger and better many other places may have ever thought of.Report

  18. CPA says:

    Tarheel, Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that once the 7% sales tax cap has been reached, no city or county in Georgia may increase sales tax for any reason. Going beyond the 7% cap requires legislative action, such as when the Gen. Assembly allowed Atlanta to hold a referendum a few years ago for a 1% increase to fund sewer system upgrades.

    Centralized control over local sales tax policy appears to be just another way for Big Intrusive State Government to maintain strict control over the affairs of Georgia’s local communities.

    You are right about the fractured nature of Atlanta’s metro area. To be honest, I don’t believe I’ve lived in a more hateful region or state. Counties hate neighboring counties; communities want to secede from each other; rural areas hate the urban areas; suburbs and exurbs utterly despise their urban cores. It’s all extremely childish, and not exactly conducive to the development of a smartly designed and planned regional transportation network.

    But, I, too am an optimist and think that Georgia can get it done– preferably sooner than later, or else I might pack up and move to Charlotte.Report

  19. downtown resident says:

    I live in the downtown area of Atlanta, on Peachtree Street, but grew-up in Phoenix, where I am presently. Phoenix has a wonderful light-rail system. It was only built within the last few years and what a difference it has made.It has transformed the city! Yesterday, I rode on it and when it passed through the downtown area I couldn’t help but to jump off and explore the newly revitalized downtown area that is a direct result of the lightrail.
    I am even thinking about moving back to Phoenix sometime in the future because of the new life it has brought to the once boring downtown area.
    I have lived in downtown Atlanta for more than a decade, and during that time have waited to see something happen that will bring downtown alive. So far, nothing, really.
    No stores, handfull of scattered restuarants, Cnn, Coca Cola Museum, Fish Tank, but mostly parking garages, parking lots, empty buildings, and Nasty Underground!Report

  20. Phil says:

    Population wise, Metro Charlotte is about the 1/3 of the size of Metro Atlanta, so you are really comparing apples and oranges. Atlanta is the 8th largest metro in the US (and not far from being the 6th largest) and so it is fair to compare it to other top 10 markets like Dallas, DC, Miami, etc. Charlotte with a metro population of around 1.5 million (compared to 5.5 million in Metro Atlanta) is in the league with Salt Lake City, Denver and the like. The issues just aren’t the same. Charlotte today is where Atlanta was in the 70’s, having just within the last two years made their first investment in rail. For those of you grass is always greener types, a glance or two at the Charlotte Observer should you wake up to the reality that things in Charlotte aren’t all that rosy these days. Plans for their light rail system are being scaled down almost monthly, they recently lost Wachovia headquarters and the threat of losing BoA headquarters has everyone on edge. Read the comment sections in an Observer article and you will hear mostly doom and gloom for the Charlotte region and racial tension like I have seen nowhere else.Report

  21. Bob says:

    Interesting comments from our GA brethren. In Charlotte, these are the same comments. I am a huge supporter of the new rail line(s), but don’t kid yourself. It was thrust down most citizen’s throats and most people still talk smack about and do not support it. Only those near the light rail love it and of course those downtown.

    There is no silver bullet and no one city is doing it just right. I like MARTA and use it as often as I can when in town. However, like many posts, we are in the South where everything is spread out. Car companies love the South and West b/c we have to use theme to get around in most cases. As someone else identified, we are no Switzerland and most of our cities over the last 50 years have grown from small towns. European cities have been heavily urban for 100’s of years.Report

  22. TarHeelBred bleeds TarHeelBlue says:

    CPA: Georgia municipalities have the option of using SPLOSTs (Special Local Option Sales Taxes of usually no more than the amount of a penny for each project) which require voter approval of specified capital improvement projects and a defined end date of no more than four years, an end date which can be extended with voter re-approval in a general election at the end of each four year period. If you’ll notice when you vote in a local election that there will be multiple questions on the ballot that will ask if you as a voter want to vote to renewal a SPLOST for a plethora of different reasons as cities and counties use them to fund mainly to build new schools, parks, libraries, supplement existing revenues as well as fund big transportation and urban renewal/gentrification projects quite often. The construction of Atlantic Station in Midtown Atlanta and the redevelopment of Downtown Smyrna in Cobb County are two examples of redevelopment projects funded by SPLOSTs before part of the practice of redirecting school property taxes as part of the funding was ruled unconstitutional by the Georgia Supreme Court. The continuing construction of Sugarloaf Parkway in Gwinnett from PIB (Peachtree Industrial Boulevard) in Duluth around the south and east edges of Lawrenceville to GA 316 is a prime example of a transportation project being built thru the use of a continually voter-renewed SPLOST (the completion of Sugarloaf Parkway from GA 316 on the eastside of Lawrenceville thru Dacula around the Mall of Georgia to a second terminus further north on PIB in Buford using the right-of-way of the now-defunct “Northern Arc”/Outer Perimeter proposed bypass will be funded as a toll road seeing as though voters in Gwinnett are on the verge of a taxpayer revolt over property tax and budget-management issues). Before the economic downturn and the taxpayer revolt, Gwinnett County had even seriously considered building its own light-rail system in recent years because of a serious mistrust of a questionable MARTA (which has proposed collecting sales tax revenue from Cobb and Gwinnett for AT LEAST 10-15 years before building any new infrastructure in those counties) and almost complete inaction by GRTA over the last decade (except for the occasional express bus on I-85 to Downtown).Report

  23. WestsideATL says:


    I think you’re confusing Tax Allocation Districts (TADs) with Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes (SPLOSTs). SPLOSTs are only used to finance small bundles of capital projects like school improvements, new parks, sidewalks and street widenings/extensions. Because the SPLOSTs sunset after 5 years, the project list can’t be very visionary. The TADs use current property tax revenues in a redevelopment project to support revitalization in the hope that future increases in the property taxes will more than make up for the short-term loss in revenue. TADs have pretty much been exclusively used to finance bonds but the revenues can be used to directly finance capital or operating costs for anything that supports the redevelopment.Report

  24. Eric says:

    Thanks for the article

    They are right Land Use and “Rapid Transit” need to exist together.

    Similarly things like GRTA “express” bus service will get latent demand but won’t influence land use because there is no permanency to a Bus Route. No one’s going to make a huge land use decision/investment based on a line on a map that can be changed.

    Bus Rapid Transit, with prepay boarding stations and dedicated and grade seperated lanes offers permanency. Light rail with tracks does also.

    Over 8 years ago GRTA was trying to at least measure and report on the various counties progress in areas such as land use, vehicle miles travelled etc. etc. had that happened we would have a lot of data. Had GRTA or someone been prodding the counties to adopt a vision of land use(a vision they could choose) that made efficient use of our transportation systems and land. We would know a lot now and in most circumstances would have taken some steps to successfully implement more transit.

    As it stands now it stood about 20 years ago. True City of Atlanta has done some good stuff on the Beltline with MARTA’s help. And the 285 consultant has come up with a dynamite proposed route complete with right of way info for BRT on 285 (though I fear that conflicts with the powers that be love of Lexus Lanes and doesn’t stand a chance).

    Lexus Lanes (aks managed lanes) the next big scam brought to you by Wall Street and the major bond brokers.

    One more thing, I take MARTA everyday to work, yea don’t take groceries because the grocery store isn’t next to the train station but do take my stuff from the cleaners that are located in the bottom of my office building on the train, never found carrying 7 shirts difficult to do on a train. And believe it or not MARTA holds a schedule during rush hour so once you get used to it you can usually limit your wait to under 3 minutes – I don’t have that kind of control over how bad traffic will be that day.Report

  25. NoMoStatusQuo says:

    Great article as always, Maria. I am in favor of rapid transit, but as has been said above, it has to be accompanied by smart land use. Look at Lindbergh City Center. Two outparcels have freestanding chain restaurants on them and one has a plant nursery! Clearly there are better uses for that land.

    With regard to the Peachtree Street Car, I would implore people to look at the Peachtree Corridor Partnership’s Task Force. It is a roster of real estate developers (Tom Bell – Cousins, Egbert Perry – Integral, Michael Robison – Lanier Parking) that own land along the proposed route and would benefit from taxpayer subsidized street improvements. The Peachtree Street Car light will duplicate and triplicate existing rail and bus routes. It would be a shame to see it developed at the expense of areas lacking transit.

    We need transit in areas where it does not exist. How about a rail spur from Arts Center or Midtown that would hit the western edge of Georgia Tech and Atlantic Station, Howell Mill and go up Atlanta Road to Cumberland Mall and Cobb County? Emory University is one of DeKalb’s largest employers, yet it is isolated from transit. How about a rail spur connecting Emory to Lindbergh and Decatur?Report

  26. JayBoy says:

    Florida just got 1.25 billion for high speed rail, Georgia got 750K. That’s sort of like leaving a penny for a tip at a restaurant to make your point.Report

  27. CPA says:

    And the ironic thing is, JayBoy, the funding is targeted for the thing Georgia Conservatives love the most about rail transit: feasibility studies.

    History has shown that Georgia Conservatives will “study” transit to death, but do NOTHING about transit once the studies are finished. Well, except grandstand before the public about the studies, then, after all the hooplah, quietly put the study on the shelf to collect dust (Concept 3), and… oh yes… maybe after another year or so, fund another transit study (IT3).Report

  28. Scott says:

    Concept 3 was such a good visionary plan. It addressed so many of the problems brought up here. It seems GA will be left in the dust when the Federal money starts flowing from the stimulus transit portion. I think the solution is to start looking at who represents you under the Gold Dome. If they are not acting in your best interest, get active, and give them the boot.Report

  29. downtown resident says:

    Atlanta talks a good talk, but thst’s all it is! Just like the imagine downtown concept that CAP has been touting forever! Just imagine downtown as an exciting, vibrant destination cause that’s all it will ever be.Report

  30. art lee says:

    Has anyone driven to Perry,Ga and just taken a look at the community? The city looks like a poorly designed train reck. It is everything that today’s modern building design concepts says is WRONG. There is absolutely NO smart building, landscaping is from the seventies, building style is from the early eighties, roads cut everywhere,( and still SEGREGATED), it’s a mess…….!
    This said, this is the area that is Sonny Perdue’s home! What do you expect with “someone’s”,(legislators), that can live in such a poor example of smart design? This is the average “Joe” from this area of the state that thinks living like his father is good. Until peoples of this state realize the shift that took place politically in the eighties , this state is doomed to become Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, etc….All of the progresses of the last thirty years will evaporate, and you too, can live in the back woods! Let’s study that!Report

  31. Stephen says:

    When did the investment in the expansion of rail transit stop in Atlanta? Think about it a little while and you will come up with the answer. About the time Sam Massell left office that’s when!! Read whatever you like into that coincidence, but be honest about your appraisal of who is at fault. Visionary leadership faded all to quickly in the late 70’s. You can lay the blame at the feet of those political “leaders” in Atlanta that have been at the helm for the last 30 years and have all but ruined the potential of Atlanta to become a great city.Report

  32. Frank says:

    In the past year, I have made several trips to visit my parents on the SC coast and have made at least one leg of each trip on backroads between I-20 and I-16. I have been astonished by some wonderful roads in this sparsely inhabited area of our state. Every little town over 1000 population seems to have a divided four lane bypass around it. On one trip, I drove from Port Wentworth near Savannah to Waynesboro just south of Augusta on all four lane, mostly divided, highway. There was little traffic as it was a Sunday, but I can’t imagine it being very busy at other times. A number of posts complain about badly maintained roads, but even several minor two lane highways on my routes had been freshly repaved. GDOT is certainly spending some bucks out there. Wish we could see more of it here in Metro Atlanta.Report

  33. Mason Hicks says:

    Bob, (Comment no.22)
    Please explain this notion that in Charlotte, transit “was thrust down most citizen’s throats and most people still talk smack about and do not support it.” Even the “Charlotte Observer” is available online; and some of us actually read it. In 2007, there was an effort raised by transit opponents to kill the 1 cent transit sales tax which had been approved by referendum in 2004, a made the development of the Lynx light rail line possible. The transit opponents succeeded in bringing their measure to a new referendum in November of 2007. If successful, this measure would have cut-off the transit revenue right at the same time that the light rail service would be first coming on-line.
    Their referendum FAILED (70% to 30%). This was NOT inconclusive! Charlotteans spoke loudly and clearly in favor of supporting transit, yet you, and the other opponents are still “talking smack”, as you put it. If something was “thrust down their throats” it should have been the referendum results, because apparently, after reading Charlotte blogs, they, and you still haven’t gotten it… To claim that most citizens of Charlotte do not support transit is disingenuous at bestReport

  34. BPJ says:

    No, Stephen, investment in the expansion of rail transit did not stop with Sam Massell leaving office (Jan. 1974). The first MARTA lines began running in the late 70s, and the construction of new lines and stations continued until the opening of the North Springs station in 2000.

    Federal funding was key to the construction of MARTA rail, and it stopped because of the Reagan/Gingrich/Bush II mindset that any federal spending in cities is “wasteful”. The anti-Atlanta attitude of the Georgia General Assembly has also caused us to miss out on federal funding, due to the lack of a state match. Blaming the halt to MARTA’s expansion on Atlanta’s African-American mayors is lunacy.Report


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