We're hearing a lot of similar comments that there wasn't enough planning for the projects on the T-SPLOST list, not enough transparency, and not enough community involvement. No, T-Splost isn't perfect, but it didn't come from nowhere and it's the best we have right now. Perhaps you don't know the history of T-SPLOST. I have to ask: Where were you the last five years and why didn't you get involved?
I'm going to walk you down memory lane a little about what made Atlanta great (versus another Hartford or Cincinnatti) then I will talk about the long history of T-Splost, it's long planning and citizen involvement for those that cared to participate.
Atlanta, from plantations to greatness:
Before there was ever a T-SPLOST, there was metro Atlanta. It was a place of vision and a place of firsts, something people tend to forget. People weren't afraid to take risks to invest in the future. It was once known as Terminus, the cross-roads of the South. However, the thought of it become a city was still mocked at this point.
Almost all the success early Atlanta had (plus what made it a target during the Civil War) was the fact of early rail investment. If it weren't for that, Atlanta would have been a bunch of plantations, and later, farmland to this day. It wasn't just the city either that thrived from the investment: Vinings, Marietta, Decatur and many other cities and towns made their fortunes off trade and railroad services. Atlanta itself invested in streetcars and became very densely packed.
When the nation started to divest in railroad and the age of railroad passed, Atlanta invested in another bold vision: It started investing in an airport before it was even profitable to do so. It now has the busiest passenger airport in the world, and is a great success.
In the fifties, there was massive investment in the Atlanta highway system. Re-alignments to help move traffic through. It was at a time where highway work could actually make a difference. That time has long since passed, however Atlanta was a much smaller city then and such investment at the appropriate time did truly make an impact. The Northern arc of I-285, built in 1969, has become the second-most densely populated and developed part of our metro region after the Peachtree cooridor.
Then there was MARTA, and against all the detractors it was an engine of economic development in Atlanta. The four largest employment areas (downtown, midtown, Buckhead, and the Perimeter area) are all on MARTA. This is not by accident. For instance, why is Perimeter Center fourth and not Cumberland, which was actually closer to downtown than the Perimeter Center and also on I-285? MARTA is a big reason why midtown and Buckhead has developed so quickly over the last twenty years. I personally work for a company that will only work in offices with quick walking access to MARTA because there is a lot of foot traffic to and from the airport.
Another project that occurred was connecting 400 straight through to I-85 under Buckhead. This was around the same timeframe as MARTA getting connected to Buckhead. Both were massive investments. 400 was not free - it included a toll. MARTA required a fare from its ridership. Buckhead highrise started in 1974 but really started to take off with this investment. Now, Buckhead has 1/3 of all highrise in the city. Buckhead also spurred development of Perimeter Center in Sandy Springs and Dunwoody, along with having impact on Brookhaven and the Northeast metro along Peachtree Industrial. It has even been a model for some growth and revitalization in Cobb County: Cumberland, Vinings, and now Smyrna.
There was one other project that we invested in that was as transformative for the metro area and especially Atlanta itself, which probably wouldn't have happened were it not for the airport, and were it not for MARTA: The 1996 Olympic games. That was a huge gamble and an expensive gamble (it cost us about $5-6 billion) that paid off immensely. It was at the right time and fueled future growth. It showed people here what Atlanta could be and sold a story to the rest of the nation and the world what Atlanta was. It encouraged people to relocate here. Plus, the games showed what a vibrant urban community in this area would look and feel like - a sort of blueprint for future development here.
Atlanta makes this kind of convenience possible. People in places like New York come to expect it, however it is very special for a city of Atlanta's size and part of why Atlanta is so competitive. It puts us in the ranks of vibrant cities like Boston, Toronto, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
Then there's the personal factor:
I was in a hotel near Middlesboro, Kentucky ( a very small town in the Appalachians) overhearing a man talk about how he just moved to Atlanta and how cool MARTA was. Doesn't that give anyone a sense of pride? I'm sure I'm not the only one to be impressed by MARTA. Obviously, the olympic committee was.
My family members are always impressed with it when they come to visit. Additionally, when it's time for them to go home. I can drop them off at the MARTA station on my way into work. They get to the airport faster that way.
Could you imagine, during lunch or rush hour leaving your office in midtown, having to fight traffic to get up to Buckhead to do something personal such as drop off a stock certificate at Ameritrade, then having to rush back through lunch hour traffic. If you don't get in an accident, you probably missed four hours of work, had to pay a parking fee, got frustrated by traffic jams, and had to walk anyway after you parked - blocks from your destination. You could have just taken MARTA and worked while you rode, only having to get up to transfer from the gold to red line in Lindbergh (assuming you didn't take the red line to begin with).
Unfortunately, all this progress was followed by lethargy. Citizens who were no longer bold. People who were afraid to take calculated risks and invest for growth. People who were afraid to spend money but expect nothing bad to happen as a result. Nothing impressive has happened in metro Atlanta since 1996 other than some TAD spending and HOT, which is really just conversion of a lane to commuter lane and nothing too impressive. People who would rather sit on their 1% of each purchase and watch their community, jobs, and land value go down the tubes. The beltline, the most transformative idea in the last twenty years, was never funded adequately to move beyond a trail and park system.
There were some that worked hard and pushed and spent money. In fact, Turner paid to the Beltline. Coke spent $2 million on the beltline. Sara and Jim Kennedy/PATH foundation along with Kaiser Permanente each donated $2.5 million. Cox Enterprises, Home Depot, Turner, Wells Fargo, the Arthur M Blank family, SunTrust, James M Cox Foundation, Weeks Foundation, Mr John C Portman Jr and a slew of others donated heavily to the beltline. Yet some people are afraid of a 1% sales tax.
We have a chance to take our place amongst the Chicago's and Los Angeles's or we can be another Detroit. When we were already the 49th in transportation funding per-capita, Tea Partyers are trumpeting the horns that we're already spending too much, causing more harm because we aren't paying enough. Then there's the terms I have heard coming from what I would hope are the rural areas versus educated parts of our metro: "pork" and "more fluff than a jelly donut" which I think is a way of saying, "I want to benefit from Atlanta's growth but not pay for it."
Lethargy is often a symptom of success, but it doesn't take long to become like Detroit. Metro Atlanta is expected to grow to 8 million by 2040 (assuming people don't throw up their hands and leave). Can we really wait around to solve the problems then?
Do we want to be a Los Angeles, San Francisco or Boston or instead an Orlando, Detroit, Hartford or Cincinnati who just didn't invest enough at the right times and suffered from the results of insular thinking and waited too long to try to dig their ways out of it. I don't have anything against any of those cities and in defence of Hartford, it has tried to re-invent itself with a mildly successful billion dollar mixed-used development downtown, but I think we want to be on a special list where the private sector is putting up billion dollar mixed-use developments every year without government dollars, where the streets are filled with people, where every company thinks is the cool place to relocate to, where jobs are a dime a dozen. Don't we?
In Walks T-Splost, or does it?
T-Splost didn't walk in from nowhere. It has a long history for those that were either involved or following it. T-SPLOST projects actually started when a fledgling ARC (Atlanta Regional Commission) started accepting feedback and seeing research that a simple wheel and spoke design for transit wasn't going to cut it because people travel just as much between towns and cities in the metro as they do commute into Atlanta. Only 15% do. The rest travel between cities, often just around 1/4 of the perimeter then back out to another edge city. There was a realization that the metro area was very spread out, that there were many employment centers, and that connecting them and dense residential areas would be a challenge. However, we had to start somewhere and unfortunately the roads were saturated and building more road lanes wasn't going to tar our way out of the problem - probably not even stall it. Busses weren't doing the job. Fixed transit combined with encouraging dense development in areas served by transit was the only long-term viable solution.
2006-2007 and earlier
It was at this time - approximately the 2006-2007 timeframe and earlier - that there were some competing visions for the metro. There was generally in-town focused Citizens for Progressive Transit, Cumberland CID, revive 285 initiative, and other groups pushing for transit and smart growth. The state developed a passenger rail plan using existing rail cooridors. Communities like West Village, Ivy Walk, Smyrna Market Village, midtown, Lindbergh Center, Inman Park, and Virginia Highlands amongst others demonstrated walkable, smart-growth development that takes cars off the road because people can walk to their shopping destinations. What the region lacked was a cohesive strategy for linking up walkable communities and encouraging future growth in density along specific cooridors to concentrate future development and avoid more sprawl.
At that time, and even the preceding 10-20 years, there were studies and more stuides of transit, commuter rail, and there were more studies being funded. For those that don't think there were enough studies, think again. Studies often -it seemed - became the state's way of avoiding having to fund the real thing. The answers, especially for the suburbs, was just to widen roads. That just brought in more development and more cars onto the road with no other travel options. Even many dense areas were underserved by busses and shuttles, forget options like rail. And yet the state was building roads to nowhere quickly. Purdue had a divided highway going to within 15 miles of every point in Georgia - no matter how rural. The state was ignoring the Atlanta area. People in metro Atlanta had had enough and action needed to be taken.
Much pressure was put on the state. The state claimed even more research was needed on the right set of projects. ARC, Cumberland CID, CfPT, and other groups got together with citizens to come up a project list over a couple years. This project list was huge and the state could not possibly fund it. The state couldn't even fund a portion of it. Keep in mind that Georgia is one of the lowest spending states on per-capita transportation spending. It is number 49th in the nation. Every politician had promised not to raise taxes. To make matters worst, our federal roads funding has to be divided up evenly throughout the state regions it identifies. That left metro Atlanta with insignificant funding for projects it really needed.
At the same time, other regions like Charlotte and Dallas were doing what was necessary to build light rail and attract businesses. They were winning out on economic development and we weren't. We had won the short game thanks to MARTA and the airport, but we're losing the long game. They are catching up and primed to pass us. Now you could say we're neck and neck unless we can leverage MARTA to give us an advantage (they don't have a heavy rail trunk yet). Businesses want a large talent pool to choose from. Metro Atlanta had been continuing to contract into smaller and smaller talent pools because the car traffic determined how far people can travel to their job. It's already broken into quadrants. The future looked even more blight. For instance, Cumberland's talent pool may just be Northwest Atlanta, Cobb County and outlying counties within twenty years. Alpharetta and Forsyth may be cut off, Kennessaw Town Center and Canton on its own and Gwinnett businesses not having much choice than to look in Gwinnett and Hall Counties. There was research to support this. From an economic development perspective, it looks like Atlanta is not keeping the status quo, but instead headed in the wrong direction.
To make matters worse, gas was getting more expensive...
The ARC Envision 6 plan was completed, which was a good first step, many years in the making and involved much input (including my own) but still heavily critized. For one thing, it still didn't have enough for the suburbs and was criticized for being too rail heavy.
There were a couple attempts prior to 2008 to pass a bill to create an Atlanta Regional government and the ability to tax people in the Atlanta region. It was fought hard by groups outside of Atlanta. Eventually, the House bill 1216 was proposed in 2008 to let Atlanta individually raise its own sales tax for its own metro region. However, there was no method passed of how to tax or come up with projects. So this legislation had no teeth and nothing came of it other than the initial structure that could be carried forward to the Transportation Investment Act (TIA). All funding strategies were shot down in the state legislature. We therefore had to wait two more years for the TIA to reach the state congress.
In the meantime, ARC and other groups had even longer to talk and plan. For instance, ARC developed an alternatives report http://www.atlantaregional.com/File%20Library/Transportation/Financing_Transportation/tp_finance_alternatives_report_030510.pdf . There were polls and citizen input meetings led by ARC that I took part in. There were email discussions and comment boards. There was significant citizen input, from people who are involved and really care about the region. Around this time, another work on the beltline park/trail system had begun.
Earmarks came and went for the Griffin commuter line. We found ourselves also in a horrible position to argue for a piece of the president's high speed rail initiative since we were so far behind North Carolina and other states. Our only saving grace was that the federal government knew how strategic Atlanta was to the rail network even as they lauded our disregard for rail investment since MARTA and inability to raise any of our own matching funding. We also luckily had David Scott, Reed, and a few others working for us to go out and lobby for funds, making up for everyone else's failure to act.
Then, the Transportation Investment Act was passed, in June 2010. It was barely passed amongst bickering and fears of economic collapse and budget shortfalls and calls to delay the vote. However, it made it through.
Then the real work began. Although a $66 billion candidate backlog list of projects was available for the state, local representatives in each city and county in the metro Atlanta region went to work picking from this backlog of projects and some new projects that had emerged, with significant citizen input and town meetings, to draft a final list of the projects. Then the list was finalized (http://www.atlantaregionalroundtable.com/documents/final_report.pdf). This list doesn't come out of the ether. It includes research, and well-thought out learnings during planning like the Cobb 2030 plan (http://comdev.cobbcountyga.gov/documents/CPA2011Book.pdf).
Everyone had numerous opportunities to get involved during these two years.
You will go to the polls July 31, 2012 - if you haven't voted early already - on something that is more than five years in the making and could have a bigger impact on our metro region than anything in the past.
In summary, what I have to ask for each person who says there wasn't enough planning: Where were you the last five years?
In the next post, I will talk about complaints generally uninformed people made about TSPLOST and the facts in response.
Read more about TSPLOST on the Smyrna-Vinings Patch TSPLOST topic page.