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Guest Column

To the contrary — business community does support MARTA, transit

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.


  1. Robert Grunwald April 5, 2010 1:51 am

    This Open Letter Sam Williams,

    Maria is right you talk lot but nothinig is done. As bussines community you have failed to sway the people to get done. The one glaring is C-tran no body caried untill it was two late. Did you ever rid the tranist in this we suck i know personaly how feel to go work in this town but public transportion. I use all three types of the publix transportion CCT Mara and C-tran. You don’t enough studies time put the shovel in the ground and done. Since 2001 you made that 9 years and we not made on inch sucess just bunch of failurs. It want to make impact why did 2 years transprotion bill fail by three votes. We are now become the new rust belt of the south. Thanks RobertReport

  2. Yr1215 April 5, 2010 9:12 am

    Sam, I think you have successfully made your point. No one has pushed harder on the legislative front for action on transportation than the business community. Of this there is no doubt. And the legislature still doesn’t seem to fully get the message, but you can’t say the business community hasn’t tried its hardest.

    As to Maria’s possibly implicit question of why there has not been direct financial support (ala Grady), I refer back to my previous posts under the original article. The financial hole is so big and structural that only MARTA or the government can financially fix the problem. The private sector, foundations, and non-profits don’t have enough financial resources to fix what amounts to probably a billion dollar multi-year deficit as MARTA is currently structured.Report

  3. juanita driggs April 5, 2010 4:35 pm

    If state leaders, many of whom are conservative republicans, aren’t listening to business leaders, many of whom are also conservative republicans, then I have to wonder… who are the state leaders listening to if anybody???Report

  4. ACC 12 Booster April 5, 2010 5:18 pm

    “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.”

    Thank you Mr. Williams for illustrating a common point that I, myself frequently make. If we fund a transit system that is reliable, convenient and safe, people will overwhelmingly choose to make that mode either a small part or major part of the way they commute to work and everywhere else.

    Robert Grunwald: The business community has been extremely active in trying to pressure our elected officials at all levels of governance, especially the state level, to come up with a workable transportation plan to deal with the Atlanta Region’s traffic and mobility woes. It’s not the business community’s fault that the our state leaders have been non-responsive to the pressure from them and the voting and commuting public!Report

  5. Robert Grunwald April 5, 2010 10:09 pm

    I beg differ with how this bussines people fund thier campiagns for the last 10 years in Georgia. The only the that working people see is lot talk and no action for the last ten years.We have no rail that help that help the outside of the marta service area. The Bussiness communtiy failed to save or seem to care that lot employees that rode c tran will lose their job because the they can no longer get to work in Downtown Atlanta or Airport. I wonder how many the higher bussiness people who have infulnce to to make things happen would ride are so called trainst system to get home from there job see how like getting home at 23:00 at night. I am from miami they have trail system that for 15 years it packed every day.Yes this talk shutting it down. Florida got big money from fed to high speed rail. Yet Georgia we more studys mor hov lane more cars and more polltion for our kids to get ashtma. It time for drastic action of bussiens if citties and state don’t it time people to and bussies enough is enough it time get put the shovel in the ground.Report

  6. Scott April 6, 2010 2:44 pm

    Right now the phrase “talk is cheap” comes to mind. I’ve been hearing about the “dire” political consequences facing legislators who fail to pass transit funding for years. Yet you have people like Jill Chambers who is ambivalent towards MARTA to put it kindly in charge of the MARTOC committee! Where are the contributions to her challenger Elena Parent? Actions are warranted now…we’ve heard the talk, the studies, the rhetoric AD NAUSEUM! You’ve got to walk the walk and cut off contributions to these Wiesels in our legislatureReport

  7. ACC 12 Booster April 6, 2010 5:09 pm

    Robert Grunwald: Hard to compare the Georgia Legislature with the Florida State Legislature. The current leadership in Georgia has had a mostly hands-off approach to many matters within the state including education and especially up until forced to do so recently, water and transportation. The leadership in Florida has been somewhat much more hands-on with regards to issues like water and transportation because Florida is a much more urban state with multiple large urban centers and a much larger population and has been so for quite awhile.

    Georgia, on the other hand, has been a primarily rural and agricultural state for much of its history until the Atlanta Region grew into a major North American urban center in the late 1990’s and has been forcing a rural and agrarian-minded Georgia General Assembly to deal more and more with urban-oriented issues that come with crushing population growth like education, water, transportation, etc. Not to mention, since Georgia is basically a state with two totally different regions in urban big-city Atlanta and rural agrarian small-town Georgia, there has been a historical friction between the two culturally-differing regions that has shown up and continues to show up in the legislative process to this day. The inability of Metro Atlantans and rural Georgians to get along has at times hampered the state from getting positive results for all Georgians from their state legislature.Report

  8. Yr1215 April 6, 2010 5:59 pm

    Scott, you make a good point. Time to turn the (expletive)s out (of office). If people want change, the best thing they can do is vote against the incumbent. A few babies (good legislators) will get thrown out with the bathwater. But incumbency is the biggest hurdle to change and promotes stagnation of the political system (and a bit of corruption).

    John Lewis (not a corrupt politician, but just generally useless to his district) comes to mind at the federal level. Of course, the problem is primarily at the state level. People get what the vote (and donate) for.Report

  9. Scott April 6, 2010 6:20 pm

    Yr1215 you are the king of changing the context of a remark. John Lewis is not the problem. He secured funding for the Lovejoy line (still as of yet unused). Its the State that is the problem…not the Feds. Not all incumbents are bad either. The republican legislature and its ideology have not served us wellReport

  10. Yr1215 April 7, 2010 11:11 am

    Scott, you missed my point.

    I agree, talk is cheap, and as I said, our state legislators are the problem.

    But so is John Lewis. Ask anyone with political acumen around this city. John Lewis is pretty useless.

    Incumbency is a problem, and it was the core of my point, building on what you said.

    I guess you may just be a “anybody is good that supports transit”, irrespective of how much or how little they’ve actually accomplished. I’m apolitical. Just the facts.Report

  11. Mason Hicks April 7, 2010 12:51 pm

    Your comment about John Lewis is in itself, pretty “useless”. Yes, talk is cheap; specially when nothing is offered to back it up. I have read many writings fom people with tons of political acumen, (one of whom’s name anchors this blog, BTW…)who has repeatedly and appropriately sung the praises of what John Lewis has accomp-lished, not only for this state and region, (despite our failed local leadership blocking the tracks); but also for our country through his courage during the Civil Rights movement. Hell, I’ll even throw in (what John Lewis has done..) for man-kind, in general, for what its worth. Calling a US Congressman “useless” is in no way “apolitical”, whether he deserves it or not. In fact, no one is apolitical; That’s a complete fallacy. Yr1215, you sir, cannot honestly claim to be apolitical.Report

  12. Yr1215 April 7, 2010 5:07 pm

    Ah but I am apolitical. Ok, this is way off topic, but fine, let’s discuss John Lewis.

    Sure, I’ll not just concede what John Lewis had done a lot for civil rights and humanity, I would say that any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

    What John Lewis has not done, in the political sense, is anything meaningful for the city of Atlanta specifically. I’m sorry, by the measure of “what have you done for me lately?”, the answer is nothing. Sure you can blame the state for Lovejoy rail, but for a legislator with such seniority in DC, he’s done nothing for the city of Atlanta. This is most obvious in the “bring home the bacon” department. I point this out only because pork is the measure most used to determine a legislator’s effectiveness. I hate pork barrel spending. But by this measure, he’s still generally considered useless except for your one Lovejoy example, which hardly helps the city directly, but more helps the suburbs.

    So I’ll still hold my torch of being apolitical. I’ve voted for Republicans, and mostly Democrats over the years (the tend to elect generally more intelligent people in the primary). Or if you want to call me political for being an advocate for good and efficient government, fine. Then I guess I am political in your book.

    For the record, I think our Senators haven’t been very effective either on the pork side. They have little seniority, and not a whole lot in the gravitas and intellect department, which gets you a long way in the Senate. Chambliss in particular is a disaster.Report

  13. Sally Flocks April 8, 2010 12:26 pm

    Pork projects–aka earmarks–are a lousy way to measure the effectiveness of our elected officials. As transportation officials at the Atlanta Regional Commission state repeatedly, earmarks do not add to the total funding available to the region. Instead, they tie up some of the finite amount of funding available to the region on projects that might not otherwise be selected by the ARC for funding. Earmarks often cover only a portion of a project’s cost — and when local governments can’t come up with the required matching funds, the earmarked funds cannot be used for other projects.Report

  14. Scott April 9, 2010 11:01 am

    Can someone answer this…the conference committee for the transportation bill has no democrats on it, and no Atlanta reps. Democrat or Republican. I’m starting to think this is just a big joke to them. Does the Atlanta Metro business community have NO pull even as to who is chosen for this crucial conference committee? Are we not to be represented on this committee that directly impacts us more than any other region by far??? Its time to ratchet up the rhetoric with some concrete actions…what they are I wish I knew. We can discuss the esoteric nuances, but without $$$ it means nothingReport

  15. Yr1215 April 9, 2010 1:38 pm

    Scott, I’m afraid your second sentence is probably correct. I hate to say it, but republican governor candidate Ray Boyd’s “turn the bums out approach” is probably the best that can be done. That, and donating money to the candidate that swears they’ll pass transportation legislation. The obvious problem with that is politicians habitually lie.

    Oh yes, you can also vote for Roy Barnes for governor, that would possibly make a big difference.

    I personally think Atlanta is probably on its own for transportation, and will have to find a way to do it on its own. The state legislature is a key hurdle, and they’re out to lunch (or the Masters currently).Report

  16. ACC 12 Booster April 10, 2010 6:57 pm

    “I personally think Atlanta is probably on its own for transportation, and will have to find a way to do it on its own. The state legislature is a key hurdle, and they’re out to lunch (or the Masters currently).”

    Or more like PERMANENTLY “Out To Lunch” while “Gon’ Fishing” (see Sonny Perdue’s “Go Fish Georgia” initative while the world burns). I’ve lost almost all faith in the current leadership to get much of anything done. In the past I thought that either they didn’t like or care about transportation or Metro Atlanta or anything else other than filling their own pockets, but now I’ve come to realize that our legislative leadership just doesn’t seem to know what in the hell they are doing.

    Our legislative leadership is just plain ole INCOMPETENT and EXCEPTIONALLY INCOMPETENT at that. Anytime that you have a situation where their biggest campaign contributors are screaming at them for immediate meaningful legislative action on a critical issue like transportation and they still not only can’t get anything done, but don’t look to have the slightest clue on how to get anything done, we know that “The lights are on, but no one is home”, it’s pretty darn obvious that “There is no there, there”. After several years of false starts and disappointing legislative endings, we all know know that our legislative leadership has nothing of any real usefulness to contribute to the citizens of Georgia on this crucial issue. But on the good side at least we have a House Speaker who won’t end up in an insane asylum after the session is over, so all is not lost, I guess.

    Not only does this group of “leaders” not do transportation planning well, they don’t do governing well, or seemingly even walking, thinking and chewing gum at the same time either. Pending the outcome of the water wars (will Atlanta be denied further access to Lake Lanier in 2012 and still exist as a human settlement by this time in 2013?) and looking at the glaring lack of leadership and vision on transportation planning and operations, there is a really good chance that this group of legislative leaders may go down as the WORST IN GEORGIA’S HISTORY! When trying to be the best is just too damn hard, why not distinguish yourself in history by striving to be the absolute worst of the worst, Sonny?Report

  17. Yr1215 April 12, 2010 8:32 am

    ACC12, I don’t think I disagree with anything you say. Although maybe there is some education reform credit due to the Governor. And perhaps just keeping the state financial ship somewhat upright during a difficult time. Those pseudo accomplishments aside, I agree.

    Anyway, I think a key point for the city, is that the sooner it comes to terms with the fact that no state help is forthcoming, the sooner it can begin fixing the problems. The city and MARTA have some tools available at their disposal to improve transit if they want. They have thus far elected not to use them. Assuming nothing passes this legislative session, Atlanta needs to start figuring out how to fix its problems on its own. Hope is not a strategy.Report

  18. Yr1215 April 15, 2010 6:01 pm

    Sam, another exhibit to your well made point.



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