By King Williams
Atlanta is a city founded on transportation.
Railroads were the economic engines of Atlanta and the state. After the railroads, there were horsecars, streetcars, buses and pedestrian-filled streets that enabled the city’s growth.
Now we have moved the zero mile post (eye roll) to the Atlanta History Center. We’ve also demolished Union Station – that stood near Underground Atlanta, and Terminal Station – which was replaced by the Richard B. Russell federal building near the Gulch. It was trains, not cars, that created Atlanta’s viability.
Each evolution of transportation in Atlanta, whether for freight or passengers, led to further expansion of both the city and region of Atlanta. But the post-World War II boom led to the government-backed development of the suburbs and crippling highway development creating a car-oriented region.
There was outright neighborhood discrimination, including redlining, unsecured home loans and the deliberate destruction of black neighborhoods. That has prevented Atlanta and Georgia from reaching their true economic potential. White flight from the city of Atlanta began in the 1950s, then sped up throughout the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. Yet a vision for mass transit existed even then.
In 1971, the MARTA Act was passed in Fulton and DeKalb counties but not in the rest of the region. Unlike other major mass transit systems, MARTA has never received regular state funding. Historically, MARTA was not accepted in the then-majority white, conservative strongholds of the suburbs of Cobb and Gwinnett.
By not having regional transit and transit-oriented developments (TOD’s) for nearly five decades, Atlanta has not been able to reach its true economic potential. During this time, the suburban counties grew and it exacerbated our region’s inequality.
Cut to January 2018. Amazon, one of the world’s largest e-commerce businesses, announced that Atlanta was on the shortlist of 20 cities for its second headquarters. Combined with last years epic fail of the I-85 bridge collapse, embarrassing gridlock, and requirements of an adequate mass transit system from the future owner of America, Jeff Bezos, state lawmakers woke up to supporting transit overnight.
The Super Bowl is coming in early 2019. And the city will continue to host major sporting events, and it potentially could host the World Cup in 2026. There are projections that we will add three million people to metro Atlanta in the next 25 years. Transit has to happen, let’s be glad something is finally happening now.
‘The ATL’ is here
With that backdrop, the state legislature made another attempt for regional transit by passing “The ATL.”
The ATL (Atlanta Region Transit Authority) is a beyond just a rebranding campaign. It aims to create a seamless transit experience by coordinating the MARTA system with Gwinnett and Cobb County transit systems as well as supporting smaller transit systems throughout the metro area.
With the support of State Senator Brandon Beach (R-Fulton), the ATL’s regional transit initiative passed last spring. And Gov. Nathan Deal also signed off on a separate $100 million fund to invest in transit in metro Atlanta and the rest of the state.
I find it ironic that the same suburban communities, which have grown because of white flight and have long resisted transit, will now be deciding what regional transit will look like.
The three of the five core metro Atlanta counties of DeKalb, Fulton, and Clayton, are all part of MARTA. It also is likely that Gwinnett will vote to join MARTA in March, and would form the core of “The ATL.” These four counties alone represent about a third of the state’s population.
Eight additional counties: Henry, Rockdale, Fayette, Coweta, Newton, Paulding, Cherokee, and Forsyth, also are a part of “The ATL”.
These eight counties are also currently served in some compacity by GRTA (the Georgia Regional Transit Authority) and by 2023 all administrative duties would be also handled by GRTA. MARTA will be solely responsible for all heavy rails and transit lines; no word on how the GA400 plans or The Beltline fit within ‘The ATL’.
The Board of “The ATL”
The 16-person board includes:
District 1 (Cherokee, Forsyth, Fulton): Andy Macke, vice president of external affairs at Comcast Cable;
District 2 (Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett): Marsha Anderson Bomar, executive director of the Gateway 85 Community Improvement District in Gwinnett County;
District 3 (Buckhead, Dunwoody, Sandy Springs): Steve Dickerson, a van-pooling pioneer and former Georgia Tech professor. He is also suing Uber and Lyft for alleged patent infringement and hopes to create a universal transportation app as a new public utility;
District 4 (Cobb, Paulding): Todd Ver Steeg, vice president and part owner of Vermeer Southeast Sales and Service;
District 5 (Buckhead, Brookhaven): Tom Weyandt, a former transportation policy and planning official in various roles at the city of Atlanta and the Atlanta Regional Commission;
District 6 (Gwinnett): Chuck Warbington, Lawrenceville’s city manager;
District 7 (DeKalb, Gwinnett and Rockdale): DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond;
District 8 (Cobb, Douglas and Fulton): Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms;
District 9 (Clayton, DeKalb and Henry): Howard Mosby, a vice president at Grady Health System; and
District 10 (Clayton, Coweta, Fayette, Fulton and Henry): Felicia Franklin Warner, a Clayton County commissioner.
The ATL board’s other six members were appointed by state officials, including:
Charlie Sutlive, a Georgia Power executive who will serve as ATL’s board chairman; former state legislator Earl Ehrhart and Russell McMurry, a non-voting member who is commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation; Charlotte J. Nash, Gwinnett County’s Commission chair; Teddy Russell; and Mark Toro, managing partner of North American Partners, which developed Avalon in Alpharetta and is revamping Colony Square.
I do like some of the board members, such as developer Mark Toro and DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond.
But the board does not mirror the region. Sandy Springs has three representatives on the board, three…whereas DeKalb County, the fourth largest population in the state, and a population bigger than Washington D.C., but has a single representative compared to a sprawling suburban town.
It’s because of this, that I find the board is lacking people with a deep knowledge of transit, urban planning, affordability and transit-oriented developments.
Why are people like Tim Keane, Atlanta’s planning commissioner who gets it, and former MARTA CEO Keith Parker not part of this regional transit initiative?
It would be great if Georgia stopped naming executives and political appointees to influential boards and started empowering people with more vision?
“The ATL” needs these people
Among the people who should be considered to serve on the ATL’s board include Dan Immergluck of Georgia State University; Odetta MacLeish-White of Transformation Alliance; the BeltLine’s creator Ryan Gravel; Rebecca Serna of the Atlanta Bike Coalition; Nathaniel Smith of the Partnership for Southern Equity; Marian Liou of WeLuvBuHi; and Dr. Simon Berrebi of Georgia Tech.
Others who could provide great insight include urbanists and activists: Darin Givens and Matt Garbett of Thread ATL, Dr. Renee Skeete of the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, Nedra Deadwyler of Civil Bikes or Victoria Hyunh of the Center for Pan Asian Community Services.
I think the board lacks youth and everyday riders, such as Bithia Ratnasamy, a housing policy analyst, or Dia Parker of Los Vecinos de Buford Hwy, who’d offer a younger voice.
I hope that “The ATL” would embark on a master planning process that would be similar to the Atlanta City Design Studio. Then we could plan to have an interconnected system of heavy rail, light rail, buses, bicycles and trails that would promote higher density, transit-oriented developments that are less dependent on cars.
A key question is whether Brian Kemp will support “The ATL” and a transit-driven region. There could be a brewing backlash against metro Atlanta, which Kemp lost in the election. Historically, Georgia has held Atlanta back, but I’m going to hope for the best.
At this point, I’ve got more questions than answers. But after seeing the board members of “The ATL,” there’s still much work to do.
Correction: an earlier version of this story misstated the number of non-voting members of The ATL board. One member, the GDOT commissioner, is an ex-officio member.