By Maria Saporta
The people have spoken. The question is whether anyone is listening.
Time and time again — in telephone town hall meetings, in forums and countless opportunities for public comment — people are saying the Atlanta region needs to invest in transit.
The latest case in point was Saturday morning when more than 200 interested citizens from metro Atlanta spent three hours at the Civic League for Regional Atlanta’s Town Hall meeting called: Get a Move On.
They gathered to talk about what should be the region’s transportation priorities as elected metro leaders decide what projects to include on a list that will be presented to voters as part of a one-cent transportation sales tax referendum in the 10-county Atlanta region.
The 21 leaders who serve on the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable will have to decide how to invest $6.1 billion over the next 10 years. They will pick from a list of $22.9 billion in transportation projects that includes heavy rail, light rail, streetcars, buses, sidewalks, bike paths, aviation as well as roads, bridges, interchanges and arterials.
At the town hall meeting, attendees were asked through instant polling their top three priorities for investing the new tax dollars. Transit was top choice with a score of 84 percent.
The group also was given three choices — emphasizing roads, emphasizing transit or splitting the investment between roads and transit. Of those three choices, 63 percent favored emphasizing transit, 30 percent favored a split between both while only 7 percent chose the road option.
The results of this town hall meeting virtually mirrors what people are saying throughout the region.
Through a series of telephone town hall meetings in each of the 10 counties, a total of 134,405 people participated and shared their views. Asked whether it was very important to invest in new transit, 70.9 percent said: “Yes.”
In fact, transit is not just a preference of those living in metro Atlanta. Kathryn Lawler, the external affairs manager of the Atlanta Regional Commission, said there was a telephone town hall meeting with the 11 regions outside of metro Atlanta with 25,000 senior citizens. All they wanted to talk about was transit, and yet the project lists in those regions have few or no transit options.
What this tells us is that “the people” are ahead of the state and regional transportation planners, who have repeatedly demonstrated a bias towards roads. While transit projects have been included on their proposed lists, the assumptions and constraints that have been placed on the transit project.
Without a doubt, metro Atlanta needs to invest in its transportation infrastructure.
But for the past several decades, the Atlanta region has been investing in roads and more roads while its investment in transit has been negligible.
Chris Leinberger, a nationally-renowned urban developer and strategist with the Brookings Institution, while in Atlanta last week compared Georgia’s capital city with the nation’s capital city.
Both Atlanta and Washington, D.C. invested in a heavy rail transit system 35 years ago. Both cities have a population of about 5.7 million. But the comparisons stop there.
Metro Atlanta quit building out its MARTA transit system decades ago while Washington’s Metro system has continued to expand (26 times in the past 35 years). Click here to see the current MARTA rail map. And click here to see Washington’s current rail map.
As a result, Washington has created a multitude of walkable town centers — most of them in the suburbs. The development patterns of downtown Washington also have changed.
“There were 90 surface parking lots 20 years ago,” Leinberger said of Washington. “Today there are zero.” The last parking lot is currently being redeveloped by Hines into a mixed-use project.
By the way, Washington’s Metro is not stopping. The transit agency’s website states that it currently is investing $5 billion in more than 100 projects to expand and improve its system.
By comparison, metro Atlanta has continued to sprawl with minimal concentration of growth around town centers that can be connected by transit.
“You have woefully under-invested in MARTA,” Leinberger said, adding that the mode of transportation for the future is rail. Other cities — Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Charlotte, Dallas — have figured that.
But metro Atlanta continues to only talk transit rather than invest real dollars to create a regional transit system.
Now we have a rare opportunity pass a penny sales tax that can help us get back on an even footing with other cities. We can restart our efforts to build the regional transit system we’ve always wanted.
It’s what the people want. But is anybody listening?