Ever since it was envisioned half a century ago, MARTA has always felt hemmed in.
Sure, the transit agency has tried to venture out to places such as Cobb and Gwinnett counties. But voters there have summarily smacked the agency back to its Atlanta home, including an ugly racially tinged referendum in 1990.
Time has — somewhat — worn down anti-MARTA antipathy. Three years ago, a poll found a majority of Gwinnett residents might even favor joining the system. A year before, Clayton voters, who are now mostly African-American, voted in the 1-cent sales tax to join the club.
A new effort to expand the transit system is being marshaled by suburban MARTA-lover state Sen. Brandon Beach (yes, a Republican). Beach wants to allow surrounding metro counties to join the system by voting to tax themselves an additional penny on every dollar they spend.
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There would be one difference. The enlarged transit agency would no longer be called MARTA. It would be called “The ATL.”
Beach, who has brandished the idea for years, thinks the moniker is a natural. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport’s official designation is ATL, so he sees a future where one deplanes at ATL, hops on The ATL train, transfers to The ATL bus or even to The ATL light rail, if that dream ever comes true.
“I’ve been talking about The ATL for years,” he said. “Rebranding will do some good.”
Image has always been vital to the ATL, a city that has long bottled its brand and peddled it to the rest of the world.
We are a business town that has the busiest airport, a hip-hop beat, and teams that nearly always come up spectacularly short. Our boosterism borders on hucksterism. We sold the world on the idea that Atlanta would be a great place to host an International Sporting Event. And then we came up with Izzy, perhaps the world’s worst mascot until the Braves recently outdid themselves with Blooper, which looks like a tan shag rug with two bats jammed into his head.
But I’m getting off-point.
The ATL nickname/branding term has been around for years. And while it’s not as insipid as “Hotlanta,” I’ve never been a fan. Actually, it’s not that I dislike ATL, it just seems too hip-hop for me to say with a straight face.
While the term “The ATL” might roll off the tongue of rappers Ludacris or T.I. (who starred in the 2006 movie “ATL”), it would make a dyed-in-the-wool white guy like myself feel a bit too self-conscious.
Back in 2005, the city spent something like $8 million on an effort to dream up a catchphrase and an anthem. The result? “Every Day Is an Opening Day,” a slogan that lacks the verve of Las Vegas’ “What Happens Here, Stays Here.” So it died a slow death. And the anthem, written by hip-hop producer Dallas Austin, did the same.
Atlanta marketing veteran Joel Babbit, who was part of the Brand Atlanta team, said shameless self-promotion is part of Atlanta’s civic DNA. He said Ivan Allen Sr., the father of the Atlanta mayor with the same name, was peddling Atlanta’s wares nearly a century ago.
However, Babbit added, a name change or a new slogan isn’t a magic wand.
“Organizations think of branding as a solution to all their problems. But it’s only as good as the product,” he said. “If you can combine product improvements and experiences to a good branding campaign, you can be successful.”
Babbit said the Brand Atlanta slogan was built by committee and doomed from the start. The circular red ATL logo that came out of that effort is still in use, he said.
The city is “aspirational,” Babbit added.
That’s certainly the case as the city tries to elbow out other municipalities in the sweepstakes to pull in Amazon’s second headquarters and 50,000 jobs. Workable transit is a must, Amazon says. So the ATL is forced to scramble.
Beach, the outgoing president of the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, is no Johnny-come-lately to the subject. For years, he has tried to publicize the disjointed tangle that is public transportation in metro Atlanta.
In 2013, he videotaped his journey from Kennesaw to Gwinnett Arena in Duluth, which on a map is a driving distance of roughly 42 miles. He traveled on three transit agencies — Cobb’s, MARTA and Gwinnett’s — and the trip took three hours and 35 minutes.
His plan to expand transit to other counties would have MARTA running the operation, overseen by a regional board. “I have no intention of taking MARTA over,” Beach said, adding that the unwieldy system of transit fiefdoms is simply untenable.
The effort to bring in outlying counties would be difficult, if not impossible. Many suburbanites still harbor longtime biases and think mass transit does them no good. And many residents in DeKalb and Fulton counties, who have paid billions in sales taxes over the decades, complain that they built a system for Johnny-come-latelies who are suddenly converts because they’re stuck in traffic.
Besides, there are long-term bond debts involved with the existing transit system that the newbies will be reluctant to touch. There are arcane intergovernmental agreements to be unravelled and residents in each county who are loath to pay for improvements that benefit residents in other counties.
So, a lot more than different letters on the side of a bus are in order here. Beach knows that. But it hasn’t derailed his dream.