An end is a beginning.
In that sense, this month’s departure of MARTA CEO Beverly Scott marks the closure of a critical half-decade for the region’s backbone transit agency and the community it serves.
Which moves us to the opening lines of a new chapter in Atlanta’s ongoing transportation saga. Now’s a pivotal moment for this metropolitan area that hammered out for itself a global perch by audaciously seizing the future while competitors were out to lunch.
We can likewise maximize the present opportunity — and profit now, and down the road, as a result. Or we can fixate on the here and now — or worse yet, on the past — and squander the promise of a pivotal inflection point.
Every MARTA worker and resident here will be involved in crafting this narrative — really, a business plan of tomorrow for our town. We must accept no less an outcome than ending up with a game-changing, yet achievable, transportation strategy that all the world’s A-list players will scramble to read. That’s the Atlanta we must become once more.
We should take the opportunity of a new start to bring a fresh, brash approach to chopping down to size our mobility woes.
In order to boldly navigate the future and bend it to our benefit, we must do the prep work of studying the problems of the past that plague us still today. They include the grievances legitimate or petty, the personality clashes, human frailties, infrastructure challenges, wasted dollars and opportunities alike. Taken together, they have left us where we are today — a great and beautiful city that’s vastly underserved by its transportation systems, be they overworked roads, or the aging steel cross of MARTA’s once-cutting-edge rail system. That both need work is undeniable.
And that is the task now before us as Beverly Scott heads off to run Boston’s well-developed transit system. Let us use the moment to move well past the status quo.
The impetus to do so was framed nicely by Gov. Nathan Deal in remarks last week at the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s annual meeting. In speaking about transportation, Deal noted that, “I think we can all agree that if people can’t move around freely, then I think that some of the growth that we’ve seen will begin to slow down.”
“Fortunately, I don’t think we’re at that point yet,” he added.
If we’re not there yet, we’re surely getting closer to the unprofitable juncture where growth collides with substandard infrastructure. That impending crash will cost Atlanta jobs and prosperity, as people, businesses and capital drive away to more-navigable cities.
We cannot even flirt with the temptation to let that uncreative economic destruction happen here.
Elsewhere on this page, Beverly Scott offers her thoughts on the transportation challenges ahead. Many might take issue with where Scott ends up, but her broad themes are well-reasoned and should find general agreement among many.
And it’s what happens here next that will matter. We need to figure out just what an intelligent, efficient, 21st-century mobility machine looks like in one of the least-dense big cities in the U.S. It can’t mimic today’s I-20 or Georgia 400 at rush-hour, we all know that much.
We can argue about whether new transit here looks like a bus roaring down a dedicated, congestion-resistant highway lane or a suburb-to-suburb light-rail line. Citizens and planners can debate how many new, or improved roads, are needed. We may need all three solutions.
And we must figure out how to pay for both bettering our present situation and keeping in good repair what we already have. Even the conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s post-T-SPLOST “Plan B” recognizes MARTA’s importance and recommends that funding be dedicated for the beleaguered agency.
As a region, we must also come to a more-businesslike attitude about how to most-efficiently operate the area’s multiple transit systems. Where are the opportunities to improve service and lower costs? Is it more cost-effective to operate disparate systems — or seek economies of scale that may be gained by better coordinating operations and services. The latter seems more in line with the ideal of making government squeeze the most out of public dollars.
A necessity toward this end is finally figuring out a regional transit governance structure. Our competitor cities, from conservative Dallas to liberal Minneapolis, made this leap long ago. Continued inaction in this regard will result in our prosperity leaching away at the margins.
Lastly, the arrival of a new CEO at MARTA should result in earnest efforts to rebuild relationships with elected leaders locally and statewide. Regaining the trust and confidence of pursestring-holders will push us toward resoluton of the regional mobility mess that we all struggle against daily.
Under new leadership, MARTA must also take tough, comprehensive steps to improve its fiscal results. That, too, will help with the matter of trust. It may also yield enough savings to let MARTA begin improving sketchy service.
And by achieving a gold standard of efficiency, MARTA will win the most critical battle of all — that of regaining the trust of grass-roots Atlantans. That will let us shake off the past, and move toward tomorrow.
During the Chamber luncheon last week, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said that, “I believe in being in the future business.” He added that, “I believe we’re in a unique city in the world.”
We deserve a transportation system to match.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.