Historically, the Atlanta area has played one indisputable role in the Southeast U.S. region: Because of its location, it has always been the regional transportation crossroads. Atlanta started as an 1840s rail hub and for the next 150 years, it was the regional leader in transportation innovation.
In the 1920s, its airport emerged and it eventually grew into the world’s busiest. In the 1940s, it started planning an urban interstate well before President Dwight Eisenhower, after seeing the role Germany’s Autobahn played in moving its World War II troops from point to point, launched the national interstate highway system. In the 1950s and ’60s, leaders here started planning the region’s first heavy rail transit system.
Atlanta’s success vis-à-vis neighbors like Birmingham, Charlotte, Nashville and others came because it capitalized on its ability to connect people, places and goods.
Then, in the 1990s, we quit. We quit planning, building and innovating in surface transportation. So, for almost 30 years, the metro area continued its burgeoning population growth, but never built the infrastructure needed to support it.
Until the pain of congestion got so intense, the Georgia Legislature, whether controlled by either party, was unwilling to approve the financial resources this area needed.
Now, the pain has reached intolerability. So, the General Assembly has stepped up. First, it gave us House Bill 170, which generated more than $1 billion in new state transportation road funding and allowed local governments to seek voter support for resources to fix bottlenecks and other challenges at the neighborhood level.
Rapid transit has been hampered by the management and reputational deficiencies of MARTA; political leaders and voters had no faith it could management what it had, much less a larger system. That problem was largely solved by the previous MARTA general manager, Keith Parker. New General Manager Jeff Parker pledges to continue the path set by his predecessor.
Secondly, MARTA’s rail network was designed when people lived in the suburbs and worked downtown. Now, people live many places and are more likely to commute to the suburbs than the urban core. The system simply cannot move people efficiently to where they need to go.
This year, the Legislature gave us House Bill 930, which marks a path forward toward a true regional 13-county transit system. Under these state guidelines, the Fulton Commission and the county’s mayors have worked for three years to address the backlog of transportation needs. Together, we placed a 0.75 cent sales tax to fund community-level road improvements before voters, who approved it.
Through HB 930, we’re now working on the transit piece of the transportation puzzle. We have agreement that north Fulton will extend MARTA’s current rapid rail beyond the North Springs terminus with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to offer high-speed transit using the managed Ga. 400 lanes planned by GDOT.
At some point, voters will be asked for a fifth of a penny for the $300 million capital costs of building transit stations up Ga. 400. MARTA will pay for the operational and maintenance costs out of current revenues.
Meanwhile, planners will answer questions such as how this North Fulton plan fits within the larger 13-county network. Where will the BRT stations go? What about — a crucial question for Sandy Springs — east-west connectivity between Gwinnett/Doraville and Cobb, important sources of traffic here?
Fortunately, the 30-year drought in surface transportation planning and discussion has ended. We can’t recapture lost time. However, we can move now with the needed infrastructure, while retaining the flexibility to incorporate, over time, evolving transportation innovations such as autonomous vehicles, which make possible synchronized vehicular movement; ride-sharing; smart roads; satellite traffic control systems; maglev propulsion; and whatever other technologies emerge.
Timing, however, is crucial. We must put transit in the existing Ga. 400/I-285 corridors and use the managed lanes GDOT is planning because we have no other acceptable locations. GDOT is designing those projects right now, planning to place them under construction in the next five years; to integrate transit into those plans, we need fast decisions, or we may lose the opportunity — possibly forever.
This process is on a fast track, but not so fast that we won’t take the time necessary to make wise decisions about the best, most cost-efficient process for moving a growing metro population more effectively.
The future success of our region and our community depends on getting this process done and done right.
Rusty Paul is the mayor of Sandy Springs.