Looking for bold leadership from Atlanta’s business community

By Maria Saporta

Wimpy, wimpy, wimpy.

That is the most generous way to describe the transportation proposals coming out of the state legislature – and the response from the Atlanta business community.

Before the legislature convened, a Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding released its findings. To just maintain our current transportation system of roads and bridges, the state would have to bridge an annual funding gap of $1 billion to $1.5 billion.

To boost regional mobility including expanding the availability of transit, it would need to invest an additional $2.1 billion to $2.9 billion a year.

But if Georgia wanted to invest in the “full universe of transportation needs in the state, including establishment of passenger rail systems,” it would need to invest between $3.9 billion to $5.4 billion more each year.

So major business organizations took a position that if Georgia wanted to stay competitive, General Assembly would need to identify at least $1.5 billion in new transportation dollars with a substantial portion going to transit.

Metro Atlanta Chamber building

Metro Atlanta Chamber building

Remember that would only maintain the transportation system Georgia already has.

When the Georgia House came up with its plan, later tweaked a bit here and there, it claimed to generate $1 billion in new revenues for transportation. In the latest version, no money has been identified for transit.

In reality, only a fraction of those $1 billion dollars is “new” revenue. Most of it just shifts existing sales taxes on fuel to excise taxes. The state also finds “new” revenue by siphoning off tax revenue currently going to local governments.

And all of this smoke and mirrors budget maneuvering is being done for show rather than for substance. It certainly will NOT add $1 billion in net new revenue for transportation (one observer estimated the number is closer to $60 million to $80 million a year when all is said and done).

That’s a far cry from the minimum that the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce said was needed at the beginning of the session. Remember? At least $1.5 billion with a large share going to transit.

But now that the session is in full swing, the Metro Atlanta Chamber has gone silent or underground.

From all outward appearances, it feels as though the Metro Atlanta Chamber has become complicit in Georgia’s favorite sport – to aim low when it comes to investing our state’s future.

We justify mediocrity.

Metro Atlanta Chamber

Metro Atlanta Chamber logo

To hear Metro Atlanta Chamber leaders talk, they say: we have to start somewhere. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. If we take a strong position, it will backfire and legislators will vote against it. If we some new transportation funding this year, maybe we can get more next year. We’re not going to get more than $1 billion, so let’s not waste our time trying. Let’s see what we can get in the Senate.

Meanwhile, when it comes to transportation, the only enlightened leadership is occurring in the City of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties – and now Clayton County.

MARTA is busy encouraging development on top of its rail stations. Companies are flocking to be part of a transit-friendly future. Young and educated residents want to live and work in places where they have the option to not own a car.

So there is the Atlanta Streetcar. There’s the Atlanta BeltLine. There are ever-expanding bicycle and multipurpose trails that will connect the region.

And with Clayton joining the MARTA system and looking forward to being connected by bus and rail to the larger urban transit system, it is positioning itself for the economy of the future.

AJC snow jam

Front page of AJC showing 2014 snow jam – and Atlanta’s vulnerability of not investing in a regional transit system

That’s more than can be said for just about any other government in the region or at the state level.

At the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce “State of the County” luncheon last week, Gwinnett Chair Charlotte Nash talked about “The Big Picture.” But she only spent a fraction of a minute talking about an undefined moment that could be decades away.

“When I look into the future, I see a grown up Gwinnett,” she said. “I see choices in lifestyle and a range in transportation options.”

That was the extent of her vision of a “cosmopolitan” Gwinnett. She said she was ready to start building that vision right now and asked the audience if they were ready to join her. She never used the word transit.

Meanwhile, NCR has already announced its decision to move its corporate headquarters from Gwinnett to Midtown where it will be next to Georgia Tech’s innovation cluster and MARTA.

Instead of going silent, the Metro Atlanta Chamber should using its megaphone to remind state leaders that Georgia’s tax base depends on the vitality of the Atlanta region.

It is in the state’s self-interest to invest in a regional transit system for metro Atlanta as well as transit statewide. The state’s 128 transit system are long overdue for balanced funding from the Georgia Department of Transportation. In other words, it’s not just an Atlanta issue. It’s an equity issue. It’s about offering choices to all Georgians on how they get around.

The public supports that sentiment.

The Georgia Transportation Alliance released a survey of statewide voters earlier this month indicating that they would be willing to pay more to improve the state’s transportation infrastructure.

When asked if they believed state government should dedicate funds to the 128 transit systems throughout Georgia, 61 percent said yes; 22 percent said no; and 17 percent were either undecided or didn’t know.

Even when enlightened leaders did not have the support of the public, Atlanta’s leaders have always carried the state into the future.

Atlanta’s business leadership showed amazing political courage in the 1960s – despite a segregationist legislature – to boldly make Georgia the beacon of the South.

Business leaders built the busiest airport in the world. They brought professional sports to the city. They built a public transit system that led to Atlanta winning two Super Bowls, the 1996 Summer Olympic Games and all the sports, entertainment and business conventions that come each year.

Where is the Atlanta business community now? Laying low. Not wanting make waves. Not wanting to upset the Tea Party. Not wanting to alienate Republican legislators. Business leaders today would rather react than lead.

So we get left with transportation proposals that are wimpy, wimpy, wimpy.

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.

18 replies
  1. Y Chandler says:

    The nonprofit community should support transit too. Lack of reliable transportation contributes to joblessness for lower income workers who can’t afford cars, thus continuing the cycle of generational poverty.Report

  2. Equitable says:

    Go Maria Go!!! The state outside of Atlanta is a lazy backwater with moochers dependent on hard working Atlanta to pay their way. “We need more empty four lane roads to Jessup!” “We can’t do without a ring around Rome!” “We need an interstate highway from powerhouse Columbus to wave-making Macon.” Washed up rural and fading exurban legislators dragging all of us back to the 1950s. Perhaps Fulton, DeKalb, and Clayton should talk secession?Report

  3. citybig says:

    We keep talking about the Beltline, but where is the planned date for the first foot of rail on the 22-mile circle? I believe that the Atlanta Beltline, Inc.(ABI) will build east-west streetcar lines before they lay the first foot of track on the circle of the Beltline, contrary to the original premise and promise.  I believe that east-west connectivity is mandatory and will happen to speed up access to federal funding, but shouldn’t ABI be honest with the citizens of Atlanta??Report

  4. JWK says:

    “Read my Lips…No new Taxes”. They would rather siphon the local sales tax share away from the Metro and sprinkle it like fairy dust down “every pig path in GA”. 
    Sorry, those are 2 of my favorite quotes of all time. It is nice that Clayton is stepping up for MARTA, forward thinking people in that county.
    What about Cobb??? Don’t you think they might need mass transit to the new stadium? Oh I forgot, after that boondoggle bankrupts them and the citizens they will be changing their name to Detroit.Report

  5. Chris Wardrep says:

    Maria, I think Atlanta’s business leaders are getting tired of constantly having to step in and take the reins. When does that responsibility shift to its citizens?Report

  6. writes_of_weigh says:

    I hate to re-iterate; however, at the expense of re-iterritation here goes….Maria – the provocation you invoke by continuing to “poke this
    pig”(metro’Lanta transportation woes) is remarkable to me in that the
    notion of private sector solutions, of which a sterling example exits in
    adjoining Florida, doesn’t seem to “spark any fires” of imagination in
    Georgia. As I type, Florida East Coast railway continues to rebuild it’s
    infrastructure and site a new right-of way from its
    Miami-Cocoa(-Jacksonville) mainline, westward to Orlando which, when
    complete, will link Orlando and Miami with (100+ m.p.h.) higher speed
    rail service. This, after Florida’s sitting Governor rejected Federal
    funding to build a true Tampa-Orlando High-Speed-Rail route. Meanwhile,
    in a vulture-like move, the state of North Carolina picked over the
    carcass of funding largess Florida regurgitated, and added several
    hundreds of millions of dollars to the development of a Richmond(VA.) –
    Charlotte, N.C. H-S-R route. The debate in Georgia seems to reflect the
    inability of the populace to truly acknowledge what is a-building in
    these two adjoining states, with and without private sector involvement,
    yet, will result in increased transportation capacity and capability.
    These are facts. Those in elective office can pretend that they are not
    accurate, or have no bearing on what occurs within the boundaries of
    this state. In very short order, perhaps, five or six years,
    transportation wonks(wonk-etts?) who may have a voice, will see a map of
    in-place high(er)-speed-rail infrastructure in the Southeastern U.S..
    It will contain distinct likely connective points. One will be in Cocoa,
    Florida. The other will be in Charlotte, N.C.. To neatly “link” those
    two points, they will likely draw a somewhat straight line between those
    two cities. Savannah will likely be on(near) that connective line.
    Atlanta is not. Neither, Amtrak, Florida East Coast, CSX, nor Norfolk
    Southern connects as a single service passenger OR freight carrier
    directly between those two points. Some entity WILL draw that line and
    make that connection. This is unavoidable. Tempus fugit.Report

  7. Burroughston Broch says:

    citybig  The Blue Elephant is already seeing less ridership (with no fare is charged) and higher operating cost than the City estimated. The Beltline streetcar’s financial future would be even less attractive than the Blue Elephant’s.Report

  8. Burroughston Broch says:

    writes_of_weigh  You seem uninformed about population distribution in NC. 60% of the population lies in the crescent that connects Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, High Point, Durham, and Raleigh. This is a 185 mile long swath along jammed I85. There is a lot of business travel each day along this route and having high speed rail as an alternative to I85 makes sense.
    The situation in Georgia is much different, with over half the population in metro Atlanta.Report

  9. writes_of_weigh says:

    Burroughston Broch writes_of_weigh BB – I’m quite familiar with populace distribution in the Southeast, and rail travel and utilization of extant rail networks and resources to boot. I am vested in the railroad retirement system, and am eminently qualified to comment on same, and I say so myself. The problem with the NC Piedmont Crescent/Triangle area and planned high speed rail service is precisely that not ever berg and burb you mentioned in your post will be able to be served via High Speed Rail. Were that to be attempted the end result would be nothing but “local service” stopping at every cow path. I have hundreds of thousands of rail miles rendered in the service(both working and pass travel inclusive) and I know a bit of what I speak. Do you have similar transportation(seat of the pants) experience? I also know what happens(and commented just yesterday on Saporta Reports) regarding government transportation “planners” and ill-informed politicians manipulating the to-be Amtrak(then referred to in planning as Railpax)  system map in several iterations during the Nixon presidency at Amtrak’s inception. But you are correct to assume that population density and planned tax expenditures for transportation “investments” matter” and  should be watched like the proverbial fox “watches” the hen-house. Thank you, Ms. Dooley and company.Report

  10. mariasaporta says:

    Equitable Thanks, I think. But I would like to point out that there are 128 transit systems throughout the state of Georgia – many of them carrying people who have no other means of transportation. There also is a need for alternative transportation funding in every county in Georgia. I’m talking about sidewalks and safe crosswalks as well as bike paths and trails and the existing bus services. It this state really wanted to be forward thinking, it would be connecting its major cities with rail – high speed or at least speeds as fast as cars. So contrary to transportation funding issues dividing our state, I truly believe that if we invested in transit, rail and alternative transportation systems, we would end up bringing our state closer together.Report

  11. Burroughston Broch says:

    writes_of_weigh Burroughston Broch  Your modesty is quite overwhelming.
    I wrote nothing about every burb being a stop. The NC RR has present stops at every city I mentioned except Winston-Salem. For HSR, perhaps stops at Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh.Report


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

What are your thoughts?