Something extraordinary is taking place.
As never before, the Atlanta region is coalescing around a common agenda.
The metro Atlanta area is composed of more than a dozen counties, numerous municipalities and governmental agencies and authorities. It is extremely difficult to get the urban, suburban and ex-urban leaders to understand how their interests are mutually intertwined.
But last week, metro Atlantans witnessed a most encouraging development.
The Atlanta Regional Commission’s Transportation and Air Quality Committee voted unanimously to pursue spending up to $25 million to help cover MARTA’s operating shortfall in the coming fiscal year.
Without such funding, MARTA would be facing severe service cuts including the possibility of having to shut down the entire system on day a way, most likely on Fridays.
MARTA was in a corner because of the failure the 2009 General Assembly to pass a bill that would allow the transit agency the flexibility to spend its own money where its needing.
MARTA officials had actively sought support from the legislature to remove an outdated formula that states the agency must spend half of its one-cent sales tax for capital expenditures and the remaining half cent on operations. Now that MARTA is not expanding, it would like the ability to use all its revenue on operations.
By the way, the MARTA sales tax is only collected in the City of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties although the system is the backbone for transit throughout the entire region.
So when members of ARC’s Transportation and Air Quality Committee voted to designate federal stimulus dollars for MARTA, they basically were giving up potential funding for their individual counties. In other words, they voted for the greater good.
This era of regional cooperation has been building for years. Two programs probably deserve the most credit for letting leaders from throughout metro Atlanta to get to know one another and better understand their mutual interests.
The Regional Leadership Institute, a weeklong immersion on metro issues, has been taking place for more than a couple of decades.
And then there have been the annual LINK trips where about 100 metro Atlanta leaders go to a different city every year to study how they approach their issues. Now in its 13th year, LINK has helped forge relationships among metro leaders throughout Atlanta.
The first time I really appreciated how the region was becoming more unified was when the Transit Planning Board developed a consensus for a regional transit plan. Leaders from all the counties in the Atlanta region shared a vision of how we could create a comprehensive transit system that would help alleviate metro congestion.
Creating regional consensus is a most welcome development.
But metro Atlanta’s abililty to move forward is stymied by a hostile state legislature. How long will a unified Atlanta allow its state legislators and top government leaders to hold it back?
Let’s hope the behavior of the 2009 session will prompt metro leaders to act.
I propose that a concerted effort be made to target particular legislators who have been unfriendly to the Atlanta region and find strong opponents to take them on.
Let’s create a “metro slate” of attractive candidates — from the governor on down to state senators and representatives — for the 2010 elections.
Such an effort has precedence. Back in the early 1990s, the Atlanta Board of Eduction was a public embarrassment as monthly meetings deteriorated into a sideshow.
A broad-based coalition of Atlanta organizations — EDUPAC — developed a slate of attractive candidates to replace most of the people on the Atlanta Public School sytem’s board.
Business and civic leaders then raised money to launch a well-funded campaign to sell the slate to voters. All the candidates on that slate won. And now the Atlanta Public School system, under the leadership of Superintendent Beverly Hall, has received national recognition for educational improvements.
The same strategy can work for metro Atlanta representation in the state legislature.
Unfortunately, members of the metro delegation currently don’t act as a unified force. Although metro Atlanta represents half of the state’s voters and two-thirds of the state’s economy, its interests are often overpowered by politically influential rural legislators.
And worse than that, some metro representatives prefer spending their energies attacking Atlanta and the region rather than offering real solutions. They have to go.
We have about 15 months to develop a “metro slate” of candidates. Let’s seize this new spirit of regional cooperation and translate it into a political renaissance at the state.