Never give up.
For nine of the past 10 years, as president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, Sam Williams failed when he and other business leaders pushed for a new source of transportation funds at the state Capitol.
Four years ago, Williams and about three-dozen CEOs stepped up their efforts, uniting with a number of like-minded groups. Congestion was robbing more and more time from metro Atlantans, and more companies were having second thoughts about moving here.
But it wasn’t until last week that Williams could enjoy a victory drink at Six Feet Under, the first time his efforts weren’t buried by the political process. This time, the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the House and mayor of Atlanta were essentially pulling in the same direction. Breakthrough legislation passed.
“We’ve been hamstrung for at least two decades on transportation spending,” Williams said in an interview this week. “The business community is elated … this bill passed.”
For metro Atlanta, the bill sets up a 10-county region where political leaders will decide on the transportation projects to pursue. In 2012, voters will decide whether to pass a 1 percent sales tax to fund those projects. If voters approve, an estimated $7 billion to $8 billion is likely to be raised over 10 years.
“We won the first quarter,” Williams said, avoiding any long victory dance. “We’ve got three more quarters to go.”
In studying the issue for as long as he has, Williams has traveled the country talking about congestion with leaders of other cities. He learned that the tough work lies ahead — after the funding mechanism is identified.
Business leaders, Williams said, will have to be supportive of the process without pushing for any specific mode of transportation over the other.
During the project selection process, Williams said, “our role is to encourage debate. We need to come together. … We’re not short of plans. We have enough to spend $50 billion. But we’re going to have to pick from the proposals that … get the most bang for the buck and appeal to the voters.”
Is there any chance there will be enough money to extend MARTA’s subway line?
No, Williams said. “We’re not going to see heavy rail. You can’t let the perfect get in the way of the possible. … Eat the elephant one bite at a time.”
So what’s possible?
Light rail, he said. Possibly a line that runs from Cobb to Perimeter Center. And improving some bottlenecks at major interchanges, such as Spaghetti Junction, I-20 and I-285, and Ga. 400 and I-285. There’s also likely to be money for the Beltline and high-occupancy toll lanes.
Williams is much more concerned about the selection process leaving a good taste in voters’ mouths come 2012. The business community, he said, will be in full gear to promote passage of the referendum.
Any current gubernatorial candidate who does not support this effort, Williams said, should be shunned by business leaders.
“This is a litmus test,” Williams said. “We’ve never had the billions of dollars that this plan offers us to show what we can do. … We need this approved.”
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