To thrive, Metro ATL needs a regional vision, structure

A generation of public-sector passivity has taken its toll on metro Atlanta and its future, as documented in a troubling series on the region’s economic doldrums published last week by the AJC.

ATLGDPAs reporters Dan Chapman, Jeff Ernsthausen and Michael Kanell point out, metro Atlanta’s gross domestic product is lower today than it was in 2007, while in that same time frame, regional rivals such as Dallas Fort-Worth and Charlotte have enjoyed double-digit GDP growth. And while we were once the beacon of the South for the young and ambitious, today metro Atlanta is no longer attracting a young, highly educated workforce in sufficient numbers.

By any number of metrics — total employment, average wages, poverty rates — metro Atlanta is falling behind peers that once looked to this area as a model, and the reason is complacency.

Thanks to a crippling combination of ideology and sheer indifference, for example, we have a state government unwilling to fund and facilitate projects on a regional scale in metro Atlanta. That impotence is on clear display in the current debate over an increase in transportation funding. The most ambitious proposal on the table calls for raising just a fraction of the revenue that everyone claims to believe is necessary to prosper in the 21st century; almost none of that new revenue will be available for investment in transit.

Yet listen to what the market is trying to tell us. Look at the locations chosen by those companies that do relocate here: Rail-based transit is the common denominator. Even Mercedes, the German automaker, says it chose to locate in Sandy Springs because of its access to MARTA. They don’t want parking lots, they want transit. Yet the last major MARTA expansion was completed 20 years ago and unless things change dramatically, there is no realistic hope of another expansion at any time in the foreseeable future.

If the state won’t act, the situation is even more hopeless at the local level. We have an increasing multitude of governments in metro Atlanta, each bound to its own narrow interests, each jealous of the other’s success, each treating growth as if it were a zero-sum game. Cobb County steals the Braves from the city of Atlanta with millions of dollars in subsidies; Atlanta steals NCR from Gwinnett County. And even if it were possible to rally those individual entities in a common cause, no mechanism exists to give that consensus a means of being acted upon.

In pressing state leaders for action on transportation funding, the business community and others concerned about our future are addressing merely a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. The state won’t act; local governments can’t act. Whatever happens this legislative session will at most be a temporary patch, and you can’t compete — you can’t act boldly or with vision — through a series of temporary patches.

Long-term, we have no alternative but a regional metro government that can tax regionally, plan regionally and most important build regionally. And if that regional government is to have credibility, it must also be elected regionally, with candidates directly responsible to voters.

Is that a longshot? Yes, for the same reasons listed above: State leaders won’t want to stick their necks out; local leaders will fear losing power. But we can develop the regional institutions and regional leadership needed to adapt to 21st century demands, or we can sit back and watch as others who once looked to us with envy now leave us in the dust.