By Guest Columnist SAM A. Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber
A recent SaportaReport column accused the business community of neglecting transit.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The fact is, no one has pushed harder for improving transportation – including transit – than the business community.
For years, the Metro Atlanta Chamber and its board of top business leaders have pushed aggressively inside and outside the Capitol for transportation funding.
We created one of the largest and most diverse transportation coalitions in the history of this state, which directly led to legislation being considered right now in the Capitol to fund transportation and transit.
We back a regional transit plan that fully recognizes MARTA as the backbone. In fact, the whole region recognizes MARTA’s central role, as evidenced by the Regional Transit Committee (formerly the Transit Implementation Board), a self-initiated group of elected leaders at the city and county level from across metro Atlanta that has developed a comprehensive transit plan for our region’s future.
We have been vocal about removing the so-called “50-50 handcuffs” that restrict how MARTA can use its funding. In fact, our board of directors felt so strongly about this issue that the board unanimously agreed to include it in our 2010 legislative agenda.
And top CEOs like Bill Linginfelter of Regions Bank (our current Chamber chairman), Dave Stockert of Post Properties (our current transportation committee chair) and Mark Holifield of Home Depot (past chair of our supply-chain council) have harnessed every bit of their influence and exercised true political courage in tough conversations with lawmakers to keep this issue front and center.
At times when transit and MARTA have been placed at the bottom of the priority list for investment, it was business leaders who were huddled in meeting after meeting — and working the rope lines at midnight in the Capitol — persuading lawmakers and agency heads that expanding transit and rail was not a luxury, but an emergency.
The point is this:
Far from abandoning transit, the business community has accepted an even broader role — of trying to pump life into the entire transportation infrastructure, of which transit and especially MARTA are the centerpiece.
Our advocacy for transit goes back years:
In 2001, we laid the groundwork for affordable, viable transit options for Metro Atlanta through a series of working sessions and studies facilitated by a partnership between The Mission Group and URS. This series explored the question of whether bus rapid transit could provide a low-cost transit option. That work showed that express buses – like the ones used across the region today – could help relieve traffic congestion and provide a sound commute alternative.
That same year we also founded the Southeastern Economic Alliance, a coalition of 15 chambers of commerce across six states advocating for high-speed rail in the Southeast. Through active, cooperative outreach from top business leaders in all six states, we built momentum and collaboration for rail connections spanning from Washington, D.C., south to Savannah and west to Birmingham.
In 2003, we sponsored a Harris Interactive/URS study on what it would take to build a desirable transit network for the region. This study got to the heart of the question: What kind of transit system will commuters ride? The answer: If you fund reliable, convenient, safe transit options, the ridership will come.
In 2007, the business community reached into our pockets again to help the Georgia Department of Transportation update its commuter rail plan with the help of R.L. Banks & Associates and Wilbur Smith Associates. This time the question was what it would take to build out a commuter rail network in metro Atlanta.
And after all those studies and plans built a compelling case, we pushed hard – some even said too hard – for action.
If we had gotten our way, there would have been a transportation funding question before voters on the 2008 ballot, and by now funding would already be streaming in. That could have meant the help that MARTA needed to bridge the funding gap brought on by tough economic times. And we could have already begun the process of extending transit throughout the region.
In short, business leaders in metro Atlanta have spent their time, money and political clout in very personal ways to press the case for transportation. We’ve made it our daily obligation, our mission, our cause. We’ve never given up, even when nobody was listening.
Now they are listening.
Transportation is on the lips of every elected official. And if we can fix transportation, transit will be an integral part of that.
Transportation is at the top of everybody’s list of legislative priorities. And it will remain at the top of ours, no matter what criticism we face – from those who say we’ve gone too far, and those who say we haven’t gone far enough.
If that’s the price one pays for leadership, we’re willing to pay it, because transportation is one of those issues that will define our region and our state for the next 50 years.