In the next few weeks, the Atlanta region will settle on a vision and pick new leaders

By Maria Saporta

The Atlanta region is in a precarious place.

And the next couple of months will set the stage for how the region will evolve for the next decade.

During that period, the Atlanta Regional Commission is expected to name its next director — only its third in 39 years. The new director will be in charge of putting together his or her team of senior leaders as well as implementing the board’s latest strategic plan.

At the same time, the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable will decide whether to endorse the draft list of transportation projects that was passed Aug. 15.

Those projects would be built if voters approve a penny sales tax referendum next year. The sales tax is estimated to raise a total $7.2 billion in the 10-county region in 10 years. Fifteen percent of that would go directly to local governments and the remaining $6.14 billion would be invested in the proposed project list.

Strangely enough, the greatest push back to that project list has been in Cobb County — where the primary investment would be in a light rail line between the Arts Center MARTA station and the Cobb Galleria/Cumberland Mall area.

The give-and-take between roads and transit is indicative of the tug-of-war that exists throughout the region. Should the region adopt a balanced investment in multiple modes of transportation, or should it continue investing primarily in roads and highways.

The current project list is split 55 percent for transit and 45 percent for roads. That does not take into account the billions of dollars that the Georgia Department of Transportation and other agencies have earmarked for transportation investment over the next decade — most of it going for roads.

The conflict in Cobb is particularly disturbing.

“This is a very complicated environment right now,” acknowledged Tad Leithead, who is chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission and a longtime leader in Cobb.

Leithead said that since 1998, Cobb County’s leaders have been working on plans for a light rail line that would connect to MARTA’s Arts Center station.

Unlike Gwinnett County which developed in an eternal sprawling way, Cobb developed a real town center. The Galleria Center had a concentration of high-rise office buildings, structured parking, a convention center, nearby retail and residential developments — and most recently, a top quality performing arts venue.
Creating a modern urban center not only has given Cobb County a heart. It has also positioned the county to become an integral node in a regional transit system.

It’s true that the light rail line to the Cumberland area is just the first link. But it is the essential first leg before continuing the line north up to Kennesaw State University and then east towards Perimeter Center and later towards Gwinnett County.

This is not a roads versus transit issue. In fact, it’s simply the right time for transit.

“Since 1984, we have funded $3 billion in our road system,” Leithead said of Cobb’s investment in transportation. “The Cumberland-Cobb Galleria area is virtually traffic free.”

Because of the work that Cobb leadership had done since 1998, the Cobb light rail line was one of the transit projects farthest along. It was a logical choice for the Roundtable to make.

Some in Cobb County would argue that transporting people from Cumberland to MARTA’s Arts Center station only serves a fraction of people living or working in Cobb. But that line connects the county with a regional rail system that is long overdue.

Back in 1971, Cobb County residents voted against taxing themselves a penny sales tax to be part of the MARTA system (as did Gwinnett and Clayton). So the City of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties were the only jurisdictions in the region to invest in rail.

One of the complaints at the time was that rail would not have reached Cobb until 1990 at the earliest. Yes that would have been a long time. But if Cobb had joined MARTA, today it would have had rail transit for 20 years. Imagine how much farther along we would be as a region in having a balanced transportation system with multiple options.

Leithead said Cobb faces the same choice today. By building the first leg during the next 10 years, it will be well-positioned to receive federal funds in future phases — linking it with KSU, Perimeter Center and beyond.

“You have got to look at the regional implications of this,” Leithead said. He also added that if the Roundtable were to remove the Cobb light rail line, it is unlikely that those funds would be transferred to roads. Instead, it’s more likely those dollars would be allocated to other transit projects.

So Cobb leaders have every reason to stand firm and put all their political muscle behind the vision for a light rail line that would connect the county with the rest of region.
Meanwhile, as the region is wrestling with its list of transportation projects, the Atlanta Regional Commission’s search committee is culling through a list of candidates to determine who could be the next director.

The ARC reviewed nearly 200 resumes with the help of the Santa Fe, New Mexico-based Mercer & Associates search firm.

Leithead said that now the list is down to about 20 candidates — about one-third from the Atlanta region and the remaining from out of state. The search committee is in the process of ranking the candidates to come up with a short list of about eight to 10 candidates. Then the search committee will conduct interviews with the finalists.

“We are going to try to announce a decision of the new director before Thanksgiving,” Leithead said. “We would love to be able to introduce a new director at the State of the Region breakfast on Nov. 4.”

When the new director comes on board, he or she will be in charge of filling several key positions within the organization. The new director also will have to implement the region’s new strategic plan.

At the same time, there’s also the question of who will be the next chair of the ARC board. Leithead, who has been in the post for a year and nine months serving as the first citizen member to chair the board, could decide to seek re-election.

“I haven’t decided yet, but it’s likely,” Leithead said.

Board members interested in becoming chair will need to declare their candidacy at ARC’s board meeting on Sept. 28th. Then those candidates will present their speeches at the Oct. 26th board meeting. Then the election will held on Dec. 7th.

So in the next several months, the Atlanta region will determine its course — both in terms of leadership and vision. Let’s hope we choose wisely.

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.

14 replies
  1. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    Maria, From what I understand, the problem that many Cobb residents have with the proposed rail line is that in its first stage, the light rail line will take many years to build and upon completion will only go one-and-one-half miles into Cobb County to the Cumberland Mall area and may not advance beyond that point for many more years afterwards.

    Many Cobb residents, especially longtime more conservative ones, aren’t too enamored with most of their tax dollars going to a transit line that they feel will be a very limited extension of the much-maligned MARTA system and will do almost nothing to relieve gridlocked roads throughout the county, especially the more western parts of the county where the roads are used heavily during morning and afternoon rush hours to travel to and from Interstates 75 and 285.

    Cobb residents overall aren’t too high on the concept of transit of any kind, but they do seem to understand that the interstates, I-75 especially, have likely reached buildout status, or the point where they likely can’t be widened too much more, if any.

    Report

    Reply
  2. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    Notoriously ultraconservative Cobbers are starting to begrudgingly accept the fact that mass transit will have to be apart of transportation planning in Northwest Metro Atlanta going forward, but would very much prefer that their tax dollars go towards implementing what they feel could much more upscale commuter rail service on the existing CSX, Georgia Northeastern Railroad and Norfolk Southern freight rail lines between Cartersville, Canton, Anniston, AL, Rome and Downtown Atlanta.

    The existing CSX freight rail line that parallels I-75 and runs through Vinings, the Cumberland Mall area, Smyrna, Marietta, Kennesaw and Acworth as well as the Georgia Northeastern Railroad line that offshoots from the CSX just north of Marietta towards Canton seems to be of particular special interest to Cobbers as a way to alleviate the heavily congested and often gridlocked section of I-75 outside of 285 through Cobb, with the line even being heavily recommended for commuter rail service by the intensely conservative Cobb County state and federal legislative delegation.

    Report

    Reply
  3. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    I agree with transit advocates that NOW is the time for proceed with investing in new transit lines, but I also agree with Cobb conservatives that commuter rail service packaged with road improvements will have a much greater impact on congested Northwest Metro Atlanta roads than the proposed light rail line that will terminate at Cumberland Mall and may not advance beyond that point for many more years.

    Mr. Leithead and other transit-only advocates also need to keep-in-mind that the $3 billion invested in roads in Cobb since 1984 has been invested in building roads NOT for congestion relief, but for the express purpose of generating more traffic for developments like Town Center Mall and the accompanying commercial strip on Barrett Parkway near Interstates 75 & 575, the mess of shops, restaurants and commercial development along the East-West Connector near Austell Road in West Cobb, not to mention Johnson Ferry Road at Roswell Road and Sandy Plains Rd at Shallowford Road in East Cobb.Report

    Reply
  4. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    Cobb residents have gotten to the point where they are willing to accept transit over the long term if they can get more immediate and far-reaching commuter rail service on existing freight rail lines in combination with much-needed road improvements to Windy Hill, Cobb Parkway and the East-West Connector, which are the roads most frequently mentioned by Cobb commuters as being the most critically in need of immediate improvement.

    If it is of any consolation to transit advocates, Cobb residents are far from impressed with the state’s plan to construct heavily taxpayer-subsidized managed High Occupancy Toll lanes on Interstates 75 and 575 and would much rather have commuter rail on the CSX line than tolled lanes on the interstates.

    I say take advantage of this rarity of Cobbers wanting transit in the form of commuter rail by cutting the much-maligned and very unpopular light rail line and giving them a transportation package that includes the road improvements they want (and need to a great extent) along with the transit they need in the form of heavy commuter rail service on the CSX, GNRR and NS freight rail lines.Report

    Reply
  5. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    Notoriously ultraconservative Cobbers are starting to begrudgingly accept the fact that mass transit will have to be apart of transportation planning in Northwest Metro Atlanta going forward, but would very much prefer that their tax dollars go towards implementing what they feel could much more upscale commuter rail service on the existing CSX, Georgia Northeastern Railroad and Norfolk Southern freight rail lines between Cartersville, Canton, Anniston, AL, Rome and Downtown Atlanta.

    The existing CSX freight rail line that parallels I-75 and runs through Vinings, the Cumberland Mall area, Smyrna, Marietta, Kennesaw and Acworth as well as the Georgia Northeastern Railroad line that offshoots from the CSX just north of Marietta towards Canton seems to be of particular special interest to Cobbers as a way to alleviate the heavily congested and often gridlocked section of I-75 outside of 285 through Cobb, with the line even being heavily recommended for commuter rail service by the intensely conservative Cobb County state and federal legislative delegation.Report

    Reply
  6. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    Maria, From what I understand, the problem that many Cobb residents have with the proposed rail line is that in its first stage, the light rail line will take many years to build and upon completion will only go one-and-one-half miles into Cobb County to the Cumberland Mall area and may not advance beyond that point for many more years afterwards.

    Many Cobb residents, especially longtime more conservative ones, aren’t too enamored with most of their tax dollars going to a transit line that they feel will be a very limited extension of the much-maligned MARTA system and will do almost nothing to relieve gridlocked roads throughout the county, especially the more western parts of the county where the roads are used heavily during morning and afternoon rush hours to travel to and from Interstates 75 and 285.

    Cobb residents overall aren’t too high on the concept of transit of any kind, but they do seem to understand that the interstates, I-75 especially, have likely reached buildout status, or the point where they likely can’t be widened too much more, if any.Report

    Reply
  7. SpaceyG on Twitter says:

    All those 20-somethings from Vinings (our future, remember) really need a light rail system in/out of that area of Cobb County. Because they’re driving around on our roads wasted every Friday and Saturday night, as they certainly excel at partying their butts off. But partying is great for the economy, so I say keep it up! But keep it safe. Build that rail into Cobb Galleria Arts area. It will be VERY popular… and great for surrounding businesses, real-estate, and keeping our affluent young folk safe.Report

    Reply
  8. SpaceyG on Twitter says:

    Oh, one more thing and then I’ve got to go do stuff… Buckhead folk should urge their counterparts/pals in Cobb County, and they are legion, to support the TSPLOST. Remember, the new North Atlanta High School (which will serve Buckhead/Fulton County folk, not Cobb County folk) will be built just south of the Chattahoochee River, at the Cobb/Fulton line there. Just south of the proposed light rail area for Cobb County. A rail line in/out of that area would be most beneficial… for Buckhead folk too. And the more connected Buckhead folk feel to that area the more it will ease the severe pain of having a Buckhead high school built way outside of the very community it’s supposed to serve. Report

    Reply
  9. mickeyd says:

    Cobb doesn’t seem to change. It has a history of not wanting to be part of the Atlanta regional area. Most who were around when MARTA got underway clearly understood why Cobb didn’t want it, but I thought Cobb had grown up, become diversified and realized to continue the limited success it has achieved it has to be connected. But maybe not. Maybe Cobb just wants to be left alone, but want the ARC funding to use only within Cobb. It is hard to figure the thinking in Cobb, and it is not getting easier.Report

    Reply
  10. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    @mickeyd

    It’s not that hard to figure the thinking in Cobb. It’s a community that is increasingly less dominated by aging ultraconservatives who would like to return to the good ole days when the county was a notorious bastion and trendy hotbed for the exurban lily-white right-wing ultraconservative lifestyle (sort of like Cherokee and Paulding Counties are today to a lesser extent) and very much lament the changes in their beloved conservative county to a much more diverse urban cosmopolitan community that has become a key part of the core of a diverse muticultural, multifaceted metro area that many longtime Cobbers, as you stated, don’t really want to consider themselves apart of.Report

    Reply
  11. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    @mickeyd

    It’s not that hard to figure the thinking in Cobb. It’s a community that is increasingly less dominated by aging ultraconservatives who would like to return to the good ole days when the county was a notorious bastion and trendy hotbed for the exurban lily-white right-wing ultraconservative lifestyle (sort of like Cherokee and Paulding Counties are today to a lesser extent) and very much lament the changes in their beloved conservative county to a much more diverse urban cosmopolitan community that has become a key part of the core of a diverse muticultural, multifaceted metro area that many longtime Cobbers, as you stated, don’t really want to consider themselves apart of.Report

    Reply
  12. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    @mickeyd

    It’s not that hard to figure the thinking in Cobb. It’s a community that is increasingly less dominated by aging ultraconservatives who would like to return to the good ole days when the county was a notorious bastion and trendy hotbed for the exurban lily-white right-wing ultraconservative lifestyle (sort of like Cherokee and Paulding Counties are today to a lesser extent) and very much lament the changes in their beloved conservative county to a much more diverse urban cosmopolitan community that has become a key part of the core of a diverse muticultural, multifaceted metro area that many longtime Cobbers, as you stated, don’t really want to consider themselves apart of.Report

    Reply
  13. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    @mickeyd

    But it’s too late…As one of the five most populated and centrally-located counties in Metro Atlanta, Cobb County IS a key part of the core of the metro and are just going to have to accept the fact that transit is likely going to be running through their highly and densely-populated county sooner rather than later. I do agree with those who claim to favor commuter rail over light rail that commuter rail on the CSX and GNRR (and NS) lines would likely have a greater impact on congestion and land use patterns than the proposed light rail line that would only be funded to run to Cumberland Mall and may not run beyond that point for many years afterwards at this point.Report

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

What are your thoughts?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.