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09/03/01 - Transportation Needs in Atlanta are Critical

 

The Atlanta Business Chronicle
Friday, August 24, 2001 Opinion-Viewpoint

Just as transportation made (Atlanta), a lack of it can break it, too

Mike Bowers

When surveyor Stephen Lang in 1837 drove a stake into the Georgia wilderness marking the spot for a settlement called Terminus, he said the site was perfect for ending a railroad. However, he predicted that "the site would only be good for a tavern, a blacksmith shop, a general store and nothing else."

Terminus ultimately became Atlanta and Lang is remembered as a better surveyor than prophet. Today, Atlanta has plenty of taverns and general stores, while blacksmithing is a lost art. Yet, as Lang understood, transportation is -- and always has been -- the reason for Atlanta's existence. As early as 1857, Atlanta was dubbed "Gate City of the South" because three of the region's railroads intersected here.

Because of superior transportation facilities, Atlanta grew from 2,000 people in 1850 to 7,741 in 1860. Within four years of General Sherman's departure, the population tripled to 21,789 in what was still largely a burned-out village because the railroads still came to Atlanta.

Every advance in quality of life here paralleled an advance in transportation efficiency. In 1929, the city bought Candler Field, which grew into today's airport. Even MARTA, launched in the 1960s and '70s, was a forward-thinking transportation investment.

Then, transportation activity essentially died. For almost 30 years, no new or innovative transportation idea has been implemented. During that time, transportation solutions have been intensely discussed, but meekly pursued.

Now, the metro area is choked in congestion. With the crisis upon us, some vital transportation decisions must occur quickly or we start sliding backward. Here are some ideas that should be moved with alacrity.

Build the Northern Arc. Of course, it will go to court, but get the process going and dedicate the resources to get it done. The argument against the Northern Arc is not that it is unneeded. Rather, opponents have a "build it and they will come" attitude about people, developers and development. In this case, the opposite is true. They've come, now we must build it.

Add more express buses. We have a world-class rail system served by the most convoluted bus system imaginable. Commuters within three or four miles of a MARTA station complain that it takes them 45 minutes to an hour and a half to reach one by bus. Express buses with limited stops would make mass transit more efficient.

Focus on east-west corridors. The area's transportation network has a north/south bias with the freeways, major arterials and rail lines all pointing toward downtown Atlanta. Unfortunately, fewer people need to go there. We have too few east/west alternatives. Interstates 20, 285 and one MARTA line are your basic choices if you want to cross the metro area in a latitudinal direction.

The Atlanta Regional Commission is pushing a new light rail system paralleling I-285 from the Cumberland Mall area to the Doraville MARTA station. Someone is finally thinking in a new direction.

Commuter rail. I don't know if commuter rail will work here like it does in Chicago, New York and other areas. We have more in common with Dallas, Los Angeles and other cities created by the car culture.

However, a commuter rail line that takes two-and-a-half hours to go from Macon to Atlanta won't cut it. A five-hour daily commute will not pull anyone off the roads. Even in traffic, you can drive it in just over an hour. For commuter rail to work it must be faster, cheaper and more convenient than cars.

These are just some of the strategic moves that might help Atlanta remain a thriving community in the first two decades of the new millennium. Without question, transportation is the make or break issue for Atlanta in the next 10 years.

Unless someone gets moving with some serious transportation projects soon, we may find ourselves being called "the Youngstown of the South." The important question is who has the leadership to prevent that from happening?

Bowers, a former Georgia attorney general, is a partner at Meadows, Ichter & Trigg.


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