Now is a good time to create a City of Atlanta transportation department

By Maria Saporta

When contemplating a vision for Atlanta’s future, transportation issues often are a centerpiece of how we envision our city.

MARTA

MARTA train at sunset in front of Atlanta’s skyline (Special: MARTA)

The assumption of the Atlanta City Design Project is that the city’s population will double or even triple over the next 30 years.

So the challenge facing Atlanta is how do we incorporate more people living within the city limits without having complete gridlock on our city’s streets. Clearly, the answer is to build multiple options of getting around – encouraging people to use alternative modes of transportation – walking, cycling, transit, ride-sharing, among others.

The Atlanta City Council in 2017 requested that the city “conduct a feasibility study of the creation of a single, transportation-focused department.”

The study reached the following conclusion:

The lack of a clear, singular transportation vision and of a central leadership to execute the vision, inadequate financial resources, inappropriate staffing capabilities, and challenges in the cooperation and collaboration among City agencies and between the City and external stakeholders are all issues that may not necessarily be fully addressed through the creation of a new stand-alone, transportation-focused department.

Transportation leadership and vision will be needed no matter how transportation is structured as a City governmental function.

A stand-alone transportation agency provides a greater chance of providing the focus necessary to attract sustainable, long-term transportation funding resources, as well as formal coordination and collaboration processes and partnerships. Nevertheless, the success of such an agency depends on the willingness of other parts of City government (e.g., Department of Finance, the Mayor’s Office) to support and champion a new agency’s mission and activities.

Currently the transportation function is spread out in different areas of the city  – namely in the Department of Public Works, the Department of City Planning, Renew Atlanta and the Atlanta BeltLine.

Report on Atlanta Transportation Department

Report on Atlanta Transportation Department

It just so happens that William Johnson, the city’s Commissioner of Public Works, will be leaving his role in early August, according to Nikki Forman, a spokeswoman for Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

“With this change in leadership, it presents the perfect opportunity to act on the recommendation of the external study to create a Department of Mobility,” Atlanta City Councilman Matt Westmoreland said Monday.

The study provided several options for how Atlanta could reorganize its functions and create what it called a Department of Mobility and Streets (I prefer calling it a Department of Transportation and Mobility).

The need for change became apparent when city business and civic leaders examined the delivery of projects under the “voter-approved Quality of Life Improvements bond program in 2000” and found that the Department of Public Works “was not able to deliver bond-funded capital projects in a timely and efficient manner,” the study stated.

That led to the creation of Renew Atlanta on Nov. 3, 2015 and the hiring of Faye DiMassimo as its general manager responsible for the “delivery of projects funded by the Renew Atlanta bond program.” Over time, the scope of work was expanded to include additional projects from the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST) that voters approved on Nov. 8, 2016, which is estimated to generate a total of $265 million over five years.

Bike share, DiMassimo, Rathbone

On the opening day of the bike sharing program, Faye DiMassimo, director of Cobb’s DOT (left) and Tracy Rathbone, executive director of the Town Center CID, prepare to test the Zagster bicycles. Credit: Town Center CID

At the same time, voters also approved a half-penny increase for MARTA – providing new funding to expand MARTA within the Atlanta city limits. Right now the City and MARTA are working on the “MARTA More” project list.

But there is the ongoing question about leadership. DiMassimo recently left her post to become a consultant with Deloitte. Tom Weyandt, a veteran city official, agreed to step in as an interim general manager for six months. It is not known whether the administration will look for a new general manager for Renew Atlanta, or use this opportunity to create a new Department of Transportation and Mobility.

A major issue would be the role of the Department of City Planning with the new transportation department.

The Department of City Planning reorganized to include an Office of Mobility Planning, which “signaled a philosophical shift for transportation in the City of Atlanta,” the study stated. “The shift is a movement away from thinking of roads in terms of a single modality – drivers and cars – towards a transportation philosophy viewing roads as public spaces that should accommodate and promote sustainable, multimodal mobility options, including active transportation (bicycles and pedestrians) and transit. By so doing, the City’s transportation system can be one that over time minimizes vehicle miles traveled and single-occupancy vehicles, and reduces air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.”

If we want to be consistent with our vision for Atlanta’s future (by following the principles in the Atlanta City Design Project), it would make sense to have the City Planning Department continue to provide transportation and mobility planning.

A bus on display at the American Public Transportation Association convention in Atlanta in October 2017. Credit: Kelly Jordan

A bus on display at the American Public Transportation Association convention in Atlanta in October 2017. (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

As the study stated: “streets comprise more than 80 percent of public space in cities, but often fail to provide the surrounding communities with space for people to walk, bicycle, drive, take transit, and even socialize. The goal is to provide Complete Streets that benefit users of all modes – drivers, transit riders, pedestrians and bicyclists – thereby delivering social, economic and environmental value and providing safer streets for everyone.”

It will be up to Mayor Bottoms and the Atlanta City Council to decide what  organizational structure would be best to implement the kind of transportation projects we need to create the city of the future.

As Westmoreland said, the findings of the study combined with the departure of Commissioner Johnson provide an opportunity for Atlanta to figure this out – once and for all.

“First and foremost, let’s give it the proper attention it deserves and has not received,” Westmoreland said. “This is a moment we shouldn’t squander.”

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.

7 replies
  1. blackcatprowl (Robert Rands) says:

    The fact is that “vision zero” & “complete streets” have been failures, with the pedestrian death toll jumping dramatically the last five years to a 33-year high. The manipulation that is occurring is strongly protested, if, mostly, wholly ignored. If the gloss were really true, it would be great, yet it is not. This sounds like the continuing attempt to marginalize people to profit a few. Overdevelopment, over density, the destruction of greenspace, the running of families out, poor, dangerous road design, increasing conflicts between citizens, lack of architectural appeal, the condescension by both the politically elected & unelected government officers, as well as by private developers… The list just goes on.

    It is unfortunate that a good plan based on good ideas is not the template rather than poor plans based on overly idealistic dreams that are not even what ends up being. It, really, is, probably, too late for Atlanta as the city will be unlivable & unwelcoming not too many years hence. All the charm & what makes it desirable, here, gone…Report

    Reply
  2. Sam A. Williams says:

    Transportation is the top issue on everyone’s list when asked what needs to be fixed in our region. While MARTA is doing a great job, the $2.5 billion proceeds from the sales tax came from the city of Atlanta and the strongest point of view on how to spend should be a city responsibility. The region and state are finally stepping up to invest in transportation but each jurisdiction needs to have the capability to weigh in on what improvements will be best for the long term; congestion relief, access to jobs and healthcare or helping those who don’t own a car. Creating a city transportation department with strong city council engagement is long overdue!!Report

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  3. kaystephenson says:

    Hear, hear! We are working in such a fractured way with every department in their own silo. It’s no wonder that so many of us are not happy with the More MARTA plan. We should be spending that $2.5 billion (plus the Renew Atlanta bond money and the TSPLOST money) in service to a unified vision for the future of Atlanta. Put transit where we are planning for future housing density and job centers – not based on historical data and not based on pet projects of departments that are more focused on roads and cars than on people.Report

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  4. burntgrassroot says:

    You know what happens when you assume, right? In 1970, Atlanta had 400,000; now, in 2018, we have about 572,000. Unless you’re doing some mark-to-market accounting (ask Enron), Atlanta’s population hasn’t doubled in the last 40 years. I’m talking about tax-base residents of the city of Atlanta. What we need to do is figure out how to levy a commuter tax on Atlanta workers who don’t live here, encourage business growth in south and west Atlanta, and get real about appraising people’s property based on quantifiable assets like condition or contents. I don’t care if my neighbor sold his house for $1 million–that’s not a valid reason to jack up my property taxes. My house needs a roof, pest control, etc., so no, my property may not be worth the tax hike. Maybe I’m renting and I have a slumlord for a landlord. APS cuts a separate deal with Atlanta taxpayers, so why was APS’s 2016 budget $800 million and the board spends $147 million on ONE SCHOOL in north Atlanta? Gentrification may benefit, but who? What’s our inventory of rental property? How long vacant? Where in Atlanta? Should developers be allowed to build if there’s already vacant available properties? Fulton County has the highest eviction rate IN THE NATION.Report

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  5. Chris Johnston says:

    In the 1970 Census, the Atlanta City population was an all-time high 496,973. During the next 20 years it dropped to 394,017, and then recovered to 420,003 in 2010. The Census Bureau estimates the present population as almost 487,000, less than in 1970. I will believe the count when we get 2020 Census results. I am skeptical because the Census Bureau’s estimate before the 2010 Census was too high by 19%.Report

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  6. David Edwards says:

    In my experience, I have never seen an example of where the lack of a strategy is solved through a reorganization. It should actually work the other way: the strategy should drive the organizational design. I agree that we are at a unique juncture in the city’s history: new leadership of a city that is rapidly growing amidst a revolution in mobility solutions. I would suggest we think harder about what those solutions really can offer the city and then build a plan that takes full advantage of them. We can then build an organization that can most efficiently implement that plan.Report

    Reply
  7. Chris Johnston says:

    Creating yet another unnecessary department (like Sustainability and Resilience) is not a key to improving transportation. The City has no control over public transport, school buses, and state and federal highways. It has control over existing city (not federal or state) streets and planning. The street and planning departments should coordinate with MARTA, APS, state and federal agencies involved.

    Planning for City population to double or even triple in the next 30 years is delusional. If we assume an optimistic City population of 500,000 in 2020, the average growth rate since 2010 would have been 1.75% a year. For City population to double in 30 years the growth rate must average 2.34% a year, and would have to average 3.73% a year to triple in 30 years. The planners’ time would be better spent on realistic projects rather than fantasies.Report

    Reply

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