Metro Atlanta moves forward — from multimodal to sales tax to new ARC director

By Maria Saporta

Monday was an important day in the life for Atlanta — from multimodal to a transportation sales tax campaign to a new executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission.

It started at 10 a.m. when U.S Rep. John Lewis, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Georgia Department of Transportation board member Dana Lemon celebrated the signing of an agreement for the initial development plans for the Multi-Modal Passenger Terminal (MMPT) in the railroad gulch in downtown Atlanta.

The two-year, $12.2 million agreement is between GDOT and the three-member development team that includes Cleveland, Ohio-based Forest City Enterprises, Atlanta-based Cousins Properties and Atlanta-based Integral Group.

Lemon called the kick-off celebration on top of the CNN parking deck a “milestone” in the history of transportation in Atlanta.

Congressman Lewis called it a “wonderful” and “historic day” for a project that began many years ago. “Never give up,” Lewis said. “I want to thank all the people here for never giving up, for never losing the fight.”

And Lewis made one more wish — that he would return in “a few short years” to cut the ribbon on the project. “We must make it happen in our lifetime,” Lewis said.

Atlanta Mayor Reed then spoke of how important the multimodal project was for the Atlanta region, and how pleased he was to be “standing here as a partner” in the development.

“The MMPT goes to the heart of the regional conversation,” Reed said, adding that it was like a piece of the regional transportation puzzle that included MARTA and the BeltLine. “The MMPT is one of those pieces that will make our vision for the region and our vision for Atlanta possible.”

The irony, of course, is that during the extensive negotiations to put together a list of transportation projects for the region, the mayor did not champion funding for the multimodal project or for commuter rail, that would serve the station. As an executive committee member of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable, Reed said his top priorities were the BeltLine and funding for MARTA’s “state of good repair” investment.

Asked why the project wasn’t included in the Roundtable’s project list, the mayor said: “It’s strong enough to stand on its own. It was going to have a number of partners. And we believe it should stand on its own.”

Emerick Corsi, executive vice president of development for Forest City (a company that has developed 29 transit oriented projects over the years), said the project will need support from all sectors.

“You’ve got a great opportunity here and a great start,” Corsi said. “It’s a matter of putting all the pieces together — the right design, the right financing including federal assistance and local assistance. Because of where this is located, it probably has the best opportunity to go forward.”

Transportation was one of the themes of the day.

After the MMPT kick-off, Post Properties CEO Dave Stockert was the keynote speaker at the Rotary Club of Atlanta’s luncheon.

Stockert is chairing the campaign to raise $8 million to help build voter support for the one-cent regional transportation sales tax, a referendum that is scheduled to be on the primary ballot on July 31, 2012.

Stockert was introduced by Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber who urged all the Rotarians to go out and sell the tax.

“There is no Plan B,” Williams said about the need to pass the tax. “If this fails, we are in dire straits.”

Stockert repeated those words, nearly verbatim.

“Until this referendum, our state had no substantive way to expand our transportation system,” Stockert said. “The existing transit that we have is challenged due to a lack of funding. If the referendum fails, there is no Plan B.”

Stockert said it was important for metro Atlanta to send a message to its top competitors — Dallas, Denver, Salt Lake City, Charlotte — that it was ready to reinvest in its infrastructure.

So far, Stockert said that his group has raised nearly $5 million out of the needed $8 million to launch the multi-faceted campaign to sell the referendum — which is expected to generate about $7.2 billion in revenue over the next 10 years to finance “a balanced mix of roads and transit.”

Even before Stockert had finished his talk, the board of the Atlanta Regional Commission was holding a specially called meeting to approve and swear in its new executive director — Doug Hooker.

The mood was upbeat and jovial during the meeting as ARC Chairman Tad Leithead thanked the commission’s staff for holding down the fort from May through now. Hooker will start his new post on Nov. 14, even though he was already attending meetings related to his new job.

When Hooker was first introduced as the unanimous choice of the ARC search committee, there was a prolonged standing ovation in his honor. The board then voted unanimously to name Hooker its new executive director, and Hooker was then sworn in by Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham.

“We all know that this region is at a time that is critical for Atlanta (and that there are great challenges),” Hooker said. “But the opportunities are greater still.”

Hooker said that the Roundtable process showed the region how it can work together and that he was looking forward to the ARC leading “metro Atlanta to a greater, more prosperous and sustainable future.”

Again, there was another prolonged standing ovation.

Almost on cue, the ARC board then passed a resolution carving out a role for local elected officials to remain involved in the regional transportation project list — both before and after the referendum.

It authorized the “ARC director to assign staff and allocate resources as needed to assist individual board members as they work to inform and educate the population of their options and to continue the unprecedented public engagement” that has been part of the process.

The board also resolved that the ARC staff will continue to work with regional partners to develop and bring forward….a framework for implementation” should the regional sales tax pass next year.

And lastly, the board resolved that “staff will develop a recommended institutional mechanism through which local elected officials can continue to be involved and engaged in the administration and oversight of the regional sales tax….”

Apparently Leithead will be ARC’s chairman for the next two years. If any one else were interested in becoming ARC’s chair, they were invited to make a campaign speech. But the only one who did was Leithead. The vote for board chair will be on Dec. 7.

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.

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