On Tuesday’s ballots, perhaps no question was more opposite the T-SPLOST in scope and spirit than the cityhood initiative for Brookhaven. Their opposite results — voters soundly defeated the T-SPLOST but approved Brookhaven’s incorporation — create a congruity that helps explain why the tax proposal was ill-designed from the start.
In short: Our region is not becoming more centralized, but less. The popular and political momentum is not toward bigger, but smaller.
Counting Brookhaven, which becomes a city of some 49,000 residents, four of Georgia’s 20 most-populous cities didn’t exist just seven years ago. All four — the others are Dunwoody, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs — are in Fulton and DeKalb counties. So are two smaller new cities, Chattahoochee Hills and Milton.
The biggest reason these areas incorporated was to insulate themselves as much as possible from costly, ineffective county governments. But it’s instructive that, while both Brookhaven and Sandy Springs abut Atlanta, neither of them sought refuge in the big city’s arms.
In fact, the last half-century of our history shows that, while the gravitational pull for the state’s population is toward Atlanta, the drift within the metro area is toward the edges. In 1960, Atlanta was a city of 487,455 in a metro area of 1.3 million. The 2010 census found a city of 420,003 in a metro area of almost 5.3 million. This steady trend toward the periphery did not prevent prosperity.
This is a different development pattern than other large U.S. metro areas have seen, or at least a starker example of a common one. Among the nation’s 20 largest metro areas, the average central city is home to a fifth of its region’s residents. Atlanta dropped below that threshold sometime in the 1970s and now sits at 8 percent. Only Miami and Riverside, Calif., anchor less-centralized regions.
Getting back to the T-SPLOST, the cities to which tax proponents often compared Atlanta have far more concentrated populations. To name a few: Dallas (19 percent of its metro area’s residents live in the hub city), Denver (24 percent), Portland (26 percent), Houston (35 percent), Phoenix (35 percent), Charlotte (42 percent).
To reach those levels of centralization, hundreds of thousands of metro Atlantans would have to move inside the capital city’s limits. Can anyone honestly envision that happening?
Yet, the city of Atlanta stood to receive the highest share of T-SPLOST spending relative to the tax revenues it generated: 140 percent. Gwinnett County, to name one counter-example, was to keep just 74 cents on the dollar.
It’s true that commuters in each county stood to benefit from projects built elsewhere, but those figures were overly skewed. The Atlanta-centric nature of the project list ran counter to the way metro residents have voted with their feet. And that gave the appearance, at least, that the point was not to relieve traffic congestion where it has developed, but to turn that gravitational pull back toward the central city. Which fed into the crucial issue of trust, or lack thereof.
As an Atlanta resident myself, I don’t want to see the city continue its stagnation. But I do think its renaissance will require much more than a force-feeding of transportation funding from elsewhere. If the T-SPLOST’s defeat spurs Atlanta’s leaders to figure out what else they need to do, maybe the whole lamentable exercise was worthwhile.
– By Kyle Wingfield