ATL’s transit challenge can’t be met one little bit at a time

BEN GRAY / BGRAY@AJC.COM

BEN GRAY / BGRAY@AJC.COM

In the last hours of the 2016 General Assembly, legislators approved a bill giving the city of Atlanta permission to seek an additional half-penny in sales tax for transit. If approved by the City Council and then by Atlanta voters, the tax could raise an estimated $2.5 billion by 2057 and give the city a way to finance its long-awaited Beltline system.

That project, a 22-mile loop of parks and trails encircling downtown, has already had a big impact even in its half-formed infancy. I live near the most-developed, most-used section of the Beltline, and as an urban amenity it has quickly, almost magically, generated rapid redevelopment, business growth and housing construction, not to mention drawing thousands of visitors.

The addition of transit to the project will magnify its transformative power and make it key to the city’s future. But as intown property values are rising and as neighborhoods are gentrified along the Beltline, their previous longtime residents are being pushed aside by newcomers with money wanting to buy into the urban experience. Just this week, Equifax announced a relocation and expansion that will add another 650 good-paying jobs in Midtown, and most of those employees will choose to live within easy transit reach of their workplace.

Many of those moving into the city are young professional people, and they are getting married and starting families. If you tour gentrified neighborhoods on a nice spring weekend, you’ll see baby strollers everywhere. Ten years from now, the national media will be writing stories about the dramatic turnaround in the Atlanta public school system, but the change will have been driven at least in part by simple demographics.

All of that’s great for the city of Atlanta. Unfortunately, it does not address and in some ways compounds the larger problem of expanding access to transit metro-wide. As the city of Atlanta sees its internal transit needs met, it becomes a less vocal advocate of a transit solution for the region of Atlanta. MARTA’s increasingly balkanized financing system also complicates a broader, regionwide approach. And I can’t help but think about the opportunities that are being lost and the lives that could be changed elsewhere.

Atlanta is already ranked as the worst metropolitan area in the country for economic mobility. According to a recent national study, a child born into the bottom 20 percent of metro Atlanta households ranked by income has only a 4 percent chance of rising into the top 20 percent, which is half the mobility rate of cities such as Houston or Denver. Much of that difficulty is attributed to the lack of transportation options such as transit, which provide lifelines out of poor neighborhoods into areas where jobs can be found.

And as the city gentrifies, as lower-income households are pushed into the suburbs in search of affordable housing, that problem is likely to become worse. Cobb and Gwinnett counties are becoming increasingly urban, with increasingly urban needs and challenges. The same is true to a lesser degree of traffic-clogged north Fulton. But leadership in those areas still perceive themselves as suburban, and transit as a threat not an opportunity.

In describing those areas 10 years from now, national media may be telling a very different kind of story. They need rail-transit options even more than the city of Atlanta does, they need to have begun the process of building those options five, 10 or 15 years ago, and there seems little cause for optimism that they will begin five, 10 or 15 years into the future.