By Beverly A. Scott
Over the last five years, I’ve had the privilege of serving as MARTA’s general manager and CEO. In that role, I’ve been deeply involved in metro Atlanta’s journey to create a truly regional transit network that offers customers an attractive “first choice” that taxpayers and stakeholders can enthusiastically support, rather than a system of “last resort” perennially fighting for its survival.
Obviously, we’re not there yet. But that doesn’t mean we should — or can — afford to give up.
As I end my tenure at MARTA still far short of that elusive goal, I would like to offer my parting observations on how to move forward.
First and foremost, we must avoid being distracted by naysayers and dead-enders. This region’s progress will be determined by its ability to overcome the insidious impacts of race and class that continue to hold it back. Instead of ignoring these issues, they must be addressed squarely, and honestly.
Beyond that, I believe there are four other major components to creating a world-class transit system that are still missing:
A compelling vision: Since there is no clear consensus on what it means to be, think and act like a region, greater Atlanta suffers from an identity crisis, certainly a case of multiple personalities. We need a bold, unifying perspective that places future public transportation investments front and center. That vision must energize the public and convincingly articulate the tangible benefits of thoughtful, fiscally prudent transit investment. It is also important to be very sober about the risks of failing to work together in a global marketplace where companies, families and individuals can freely choose to locate elsewhere.
Leadership: With a few notable exceptions, this region and state are sorely lacking in committed civic and elected leaders and it has an unfortunate excess of spectators, backward-looking separatists and opportunists. While it might be a cliché, the bottom line is that voters must demand more than sound bites and episodic appearances from those whom they have chosen to represent their interests. That doesn’t just happen in a single election cycle, however. Like investing in transit or anything important, it’s a lifetime commitment.
A realistic financial plan: The public needs a clear understanding of the true costs of all transportation investments — not just transit. An intensive public education campaign is needed to explain that the total cost of any project includes planning, construction, operations, maintenance, system preservation and long-term capital replacement. It’s unrealistic to think that counties and cities can pay for these investments alone or that the federal government is the cavalry coming to save us from ourselves. Sooner rather than later, the state must become a dedicated funding partner in helping to pay for transit services.
A regional governance structure: Tackling this “big ugly” is key to transforming the region’s vision into a reality. It will require clarity and consensus on how best to prioritize new transit investments, assigning responsibility for everything from program delivery to operations to maintenance. Before voters are asked (again) to commit to any major new transportation funding plan, a governance structure must be in place that thoughtfully addresses transit coverage, power-sharing and public accountability — for starters. Toward that end, the region must conduct an unsparing postmortem on the failure of last July’s transportation referendum to fully grasp what happened and avoid repeating those missteps.
It’s critically important that all these conversations be approached with a genuine sense of inclusivity and a purposeful commitment to equity. That’s the only way to garner the widespread support necessary to ensure success as the region, its residents and their transportation needs become more diverse.
Although I won’t be here to participate in these game-changing discussions firsthand, I’m optimistic this region and state will ultimately transcend the constraints of the past and lay claim to their greatest aspirations for the future.
Beverly A. Scott has recently accepted a position as General Manager of the Metropolitan Boston Transit Authority (MBTA) and Rail and Transit Administrator for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.