“I want to be clear on something with regard to MARTA and transit in general. One of the things about enacting the best policies is the willingness to change your opinion when new data and new facts are presented. I don’t know if MARTA will expand, and if it does, I don’t know what it might look like.
“But what I do know is that major companies who seek out our state want reliable public transit options in metro Atlanta. If we expect to continue to attract global firms such as Mercedes Benz, we have to be willing to leave the past in the past and think more about the future…. Whether we’re talking about roads, bridges, public transit or our ports, we have to look beyond that which is politically expedient and seek out real solutions, those policies that will empower the continued economic growth of this state, or choose stagnation.”
— Georgia House Speaker David Ralston
Dec. 2, 2015
Talk like that has been a long time coming.
But as House Speaker David Ralston noted in a pre-legislative breakfast speech this morning sponsored by PolicyBest, new facts and new data had better lead you to new conclusions. In this case, they better lead you to the conclusion that Georgia can no longer afford to treat public transit as some evil leftist conspiracy designed to undermine the truly American development model of five-acre lots, 3,000-square-foot houses, three-car garages, hour-long commutes and strip shopping malls.
If you want those things, fine. It can still be a wonderful way to raise a family for those who choose it. But that development model cannot be the only model available, not if this state and region intend to thrive. And the prior dominance of that model certainly wasn’t as market-driven as its pre-recession defenders often argued. With every transportation dollar in the state devoted to building highways and interchanges through open farmland, with suburban zoning boards and county commissions outlawing high-density development in favor of sprawl, and with transportation policy perceived as a means to enforce racial and economic segregation rather than interconnection, that model was dictated at least as much by government policy as it was by the demands of the market.
And the market has changed dramatically, even if government policy has not. With the obvious and frankly illogical exception of the Atlanta Braves, major employers increasingly see an absence of transit access as a disqualification when it comes to expansion or relocation. As Ralston suggested, an effective public transit system is not an option or an amenity for a metro region the size of Atlanta and with the ambitions of Atlanta. It is an absolute necessity, and after decades of hostility, Georgia’s leadership is finally coming to accept that fact.
That realization is far from universal, of course, both in the General Assembly and in local government. A lot of difficult conversations and decisions have yet to take place, on issues from funding to governance to geographic scale. But those communities that continue to reject public transit as a threat to their identity — Cobb County, Johns Creek, Gwinnett County, among others — are making a bet that tomorrow will be much like yesterday, and that isolation rather than integration — in all senses of that word — is an economically viable course.
In a future in which interconnection is the primary requirement of success, that’s a bet that you’re almost certain to lose.