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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”