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.