By Tom Sabulis – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Regionalism. The word has almost taken on a pejorative meaning in metro Atlanta. A lot of people have come to dislike it, or at least, what it implies. It was all but tarred and feathered during the bitter fight last year over the proposed transportation sales tax, which aimed to fund regionalized solutions to our traffic mess.
Even the chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, says he’d like to move away from using the term because “it carries so much baggage.”
No doubt, he’d find some agreement among those behind the Georgia website www.repealregionalism.com, which criticizes regionalism as a “4th layer of government” and “an unconstitutional taxing authority,” among other things.
What’s next, then, for metro Atlanta and its problems if not regional solutions? Sub-regionalism? Additional cities? Or more of the go-it-alone approach that got us where we are in the first place?
At a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution community forum, sponsored by PNC Bank, we asked a panel of area leaders if true regionalism – or whatever it should be called — is possible within such a diverse archipelago of interests as metro Atlanta. Here’s some of what they said. (Comments have been edited for clarity and space.)
On regionalism: I think regionalism is an abstract term. To me, it makes sense for governments to work together when there are economies of scale that you can garner by working together. That may be two or three counties. It may be a watershed. It depends on what you’re talking about. It’s not always the same thing. Regionalism, to me, is working together if it makes a difference in getting more efficiency at lower cost.
Priority issues: The most important issue is water. There is no way that any jurisdiction in the Atlanta area can prosper if we don’t have a water supply. But in terms of transportation needs, the differences are so tremendous, especially in densities. And transportation infrastructure has to be related to density. If you don’t take density into account, you are going to end up with product that is not used and you can’t afford.
Suggested fix: Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, Gwinnett, Clayton – that’s the region that needs to talk about transportation (collaboration). We have four different bus systems — that’s ridiculous. The buses ought to be under one central management. We need to think of the region in a different shape than we have in the past, and make it more relevant to what the real problem is, which is to meld MARTA and the other systems into one.
Cityhood trend: Since we (Sandy Springs) have come become a city, we’ve paved 110 miles of road. We never saw a paving truck under Fulton County. We put in a brand new park, 20 miles of sidewalks, street lamps up and down the roads, all under the same millage rate. That says to me that people are better off than they were before.
Positive regionalism: There’s a huge amount of collaboration that goes on that the public does not realize. We have inter-governmental relations with other jurisdictions on so many services. We make new relationships where we see they are needed. My need to collaborate with other local governments comes because I can see the benefit of lower costs if we do things together.
On regionalism: We don’t take up an issue and define it as regional unless the board of the ARC agrees collectively that it is a regional issue, and one around which collaboration is desirable. We have 39 board members at the ARC — 10 are the county commission chairs for the 10 counties; 13 are mayors. These are local elected officials who come together around issues where we agree collaboration creates a synergy.
Priority issues: At the ARC, we very specifically have identified what we believe are the top three regional issues. The top regional priority is water. If people think we are running out of water, we simply cannot be competitive in this national or international (business) environment. Second is aging services. We need a public infrastructure that provides transportation services, that provides facilities and programs for those who are aging who don’t have the wherewithal financially to access those types of services on a private basis. We have 750,000 people over the age of 65 in our region today. In 20 years that’s going to double to 1.5 million. The third issue is transportation. We have right now $58 billion to spend on transportation over the next 30 years. Our aspiration plan says that our needs total about $160 billion.
Suggested fix: We at the ARC developed several years ago a number of principles for a regional transit entity that would bring all of the various transit entities together under a single umbrella. But so far we have not been successful in passing a transit governance bill. We have to recognize that sprawl creates a burden and a cost on our infrastructure that is simply not affordable any more.
Need for regional approach: In this region, 67 percent of the people who get up in the morning and get in their cars to go to work, leave their county and wind up in some other county. So it is truly regional in nature. We are going to double in size over the next 30 years and we’ll have double the number of cars.
Steve Brown, chairman, Fayette County Commission
On regionalism: One thing that doesn’t work necessarily is mandated regionalism, and I think we’ve experienced a taste of that with the state legislature. That’s one thing that we need to be careful of, where you’re forcing the issue. The Transportation Investment Act (TIA) is one example of where you had to participate in that (T-SPLOST) referendum. You need to have a (regional) conversation. But a mandated policy where you have to fit into a particular mold, I don’t think is necessarily productive.
Priority issues: When you’re talking about transportation and water and a lot of things that we consider regional issues, the unfortunate thing is that most of it is controlled by the state legislature. They are the ones that pull the trigger. The decisions have to come from on high. The state tried to do the transportation solution and it was just a very awkward proposition. A lot of times the legislatures don’t have the knowledge to wrap themselves around the issue. A lot of times they’re very parochial. A lot of times it’s very, very slow.
Suggested fix: Flexibility is the key to planning in this regional context, allowing core urban counties to collaborate with one another. One thing I espouse is looking at sub-regions. It’s easy for me to get together with Coweta County, south Fulton county, Clayton County and Henry County and say, ‘We see you all the time, we drive on all your roads, what’s important to us and what do we need to solve?’ You have to come up with a mutual solution that’s going to benefit everyone.
Cityhood trend: I think the new municipalities have added some vitality to those areas. It’s given them a sense of ownership. Allowing people to decide their own fate and their own destiny, I think is a good thing. Sandy Springs is an entirely different place since it became a city.
On regionalism: We often talk about regionalism in the context of fixing problems. Regionalism also presents opportunities to achieve shared goals, things we’re excited about. There are a lot of positive things that can be achieved through collaboration and that’s being done on a 10-county basis. It’s not just about the problems.
Priority issue: There is a disconnect. We elect our officials locally and then a part of their time is allocated to regional policymaking. It puts local elected officials in a very precarious position sometimes because they’re elected to represent the interests of their constituents. In campaign rhetoric, that turns into defending their constituents against everybody else’s constituents and that does not set the tone for collaboration. It’s very difficult for local elected officials to balance that. I think it’s something that can’t be solved by any one thing and it will take time, but we need to as elected officials and constituents (recognize) that there are times … when we need to collaborate and there are times we don’t.
Suggested fix: At the Civic League, we would like to see citizens and residents involved early and often in regional planning processes, and in all planning processes. Since you don’t have regional elected officials, you don’t relate to the people making regional policy decisions in the same way you do your county commissioner or your mayor. With the transportation referendum, I think that was a large part of the problem – the distrust, the feeling that there was a lack of transparency. The legislation was written in such a way that we didn’t have a year or two to involve citizens in these conversations about transportation, and we should have. Going forward, any attempts we make at collaboration, whether it’s a on a regional or sub-regional basis, should involve citizens at the very beginning. Citizens should be informing policymaking.
Cityhood trend: These new cities are born out of genuine discontent with county governments, and distrust of government, and that’s a problem.