Metro Atlanta must build a regional light rail system or become “second-class” and “second-rate,” Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said in his Feb. 28 “State of the City” address, in perhaps the strongest pro-transit commentary of his four-year term.

In his previous three “State of the City” speeches to the Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber of Commerce, Paul has evangelized for regional transportation planning. This year, however, he was specific about a regional rail network, a mass transit mode that won him over during a recent observation visit to Dallas with other state and Fulton County officials.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul delivers his “State of the City” address Feb. 28 at the Westin Atlanta Perimeter North hotel. (Photo John Ruch)

“They got problems, too. But they do have a regional light rail system that takes people where they want to go,” the mayor said of Dallas in his speech to hundreds at the Westin Atlanta Perimeter North hotel.

“So we’ve got to sell our partners on this large vision,” Paul said. “But I honestly believe if we don’t do something now…we are consigning the metropolitan Atlanta area…to second-rate status in the second half of the 21st century, and I am not willing to be responsible for that.”

That comment got notably big applause from the crowd. And Chamber members will be hearing more about transit; the speaker at the group’s next luncheon, on April 11, will be MARTA CEO Keith Parker.

The mayor didn’t go into details, but the first steps for regional transit planning are already being taken. He is among a group of Fulton mayors and commissioners meeting regularly on various transportation issues, including a possible 2018 ballot question about sales tax funding for some form of regional transit. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed already helped shepherd through such funding for MARTA within his city’s limits last fall. Paul did say that Fulton County has agreed to pay for an initial study of a “grand, regional plan.”

This year, Sandy Springs will start benefiting from a county transportation local option sales tax. Its project list includes some bicycle, pedestrian and bus facilities, but most of the projects are road-oriented. Paul said the city and region need more alternatives as the population continues to boom.

On the recent Dallas trip, he said, he was also impressed by highway toll lanes where drivers get a minimum guaranteed speed of 50 mph. “But we cannot build enough roads to solve the traffic problem,” the mayor said.

He pointed to the state spending $1.6 billion over the next decade on the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange—“only to make transportation 10 percent worse. Shocking, isn’t it?” He was referring to Georgia Department of Transportation figures showing that the Perimeter highways’ congestion would be 22 percent worse without the improvements, which will reduce the symptoms rather than providing a cure.

Paul spoke urgently of the “imperative” need to begin transit planning now to ensure the area’s continued economic success. “We can’t do it in one-person-vehicle increments, and I say that as [mayor of the] hometown of Mercedes-Benz,” the mayor joked, referring to the carmaker that is moving its U.S. headquarters to town.

Paul said he wants to hear more comments like those from a Midtown resident he recently met who commutes here by MARTA train. “She says, ‘I get home faster than most people get out of the parking garage at work,’” he recalled.

An immediate traffic issue is the SunTrust Park, the new Atlanta Braves stadium opening in nearby Cobb County in April. Questioned by an audience member, Paul expressed a mix of confidence that traffic eventually won’t be as bad as locals fear, and caution that it will be worse than the Braves predict. “I’m investing in a canoe” to cross the Chattahoochee River to the stadium, the mayor joked, while adding he is indeed going there to attend its first major concert, Billy Joel.

“Look, the Braves are going to be a net positive for this community. They are,” Paul said.

The mayor also touched on a couple of nearly complete efforts that have defined his term. One is the forthcoming new zoning code that will make development rules “very understandable” and help revive places like Roswell Road, which he called an “old, broken tiara.”

The city’s own massive City Springs project is going up on Roswell Road, a combo city hall, theater, park, restaurant spot and more. Noting that the project will go from dirt to nearly complete within his first term, Paul pointed to a table of city officials, praising City Manager John McDonough’s oversight of the plan and city councilmembers for daring to approve the $220 million budget. As the mayor spoke about how, one day soon, everyone in town will want to go spend a day at City Springs, Councilmember Gabriel Sterling crossed his fingers on the tabletop with a nod and smile to fellow Councilmember Andy Bauman.

The Reporter was among the sponsors of the “State of the City” event.