‘Faster horses’ not the answer

“I ride MARTA.” It’s a statement often met with a look of pity, or disbelief, or even disdain. It apparently surprises — even shocks — most people, that a dignified businessman or businesswoman actually uses metro Atlanta’s public transit system.

I’m sure it also will surprise my peers and competitors when they read that I often ride the train or bus. I have the option to drive my own car, or take Uber, whenever and wherever I want. But I choose MARTA.

The widespread aversion to public transit in Atlanta is a viewpoint that’s foreign to me, having been raised in the New York City area, where virtually everyone who had access to transit took advantage of it. The buses that come streaming into the Port Authority Terminal and the trains that come steaming into Grand Central Terminal each day carry people from all walks of life. And it has been that way for generations. There is no cultural or racial bias for, or against, transit. It is a way of life, just as a motorist-centric culture has become a way of life in Atlanta, a culture we cling to for fear of the unknown.

Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” This statement ironically refers to the automobile, something that was feared by the general populace of the time, simply because it was unknown. It has been applied any time that which is comfortable is challenged by that which has become practical. And just as ironically, it can now be applied to the replacement of the automobile as a viable vehicle for the future.

The expansion of public transit into north Fulton County has been playing catch-up since the connection of Ga. 400 in 1993, when economic development outside the Perimeter began a boom that has increased population, added jobs and prompted rampant development. With it came traffic, lots of it. For myriad reasons, not the least of which is the cultural and racial bias (a.k.a. fear) of our leadership, the reaction has been building “faster horses” by adding lanes to Ga. 400, stalling public transit at the North Springs station.

As many will recall, the development of the Dunwoody MARTA station in 1996 brought such uproar by the residents of Dunwoody that it's no surprise development of the North Line has been halted at North Springs since 2000. Today, much of that opposition has fallen by the wayside as corporations base location decisions solely on the availability of transit.

Not only are these job creators and economic engines not fearful of MARTA, they are attracted to it. And whereas this has been a well-kept secret in Atlanta economic development circles, it was front-page news when State Farm officials chose to locate at a MARTA station, even asking MARTA if it could bring a connection directly into their lobby! It was a seminal moment, as employers sought that very accessibility that was so scorned in the past — making local municipalities sit up and take notice to the now undeniable demand: Provide the necessary infrastructure for our business, or we will take it elsewhere.

Unfortunately, that message has not reached decision-makers in north Fulton County, as many still see MARTA as only needing one stop — the airport — and so we build “faster horses.” And as our economic future is being impacted by our inability to manage our fear of the unknown, we sit idling on Ga. 400, the perfect metaphor for the indecision that plagues our leadership.

Yes, high hurdles stand in the way. Where will the station footprints fall? Should MARTA select sites east or west of Ga. 400? How will the enormous cost of heavy rail be funded? Many questions must be answered, and decisions made, to move this issue off dead center. It is time for the leadership of our region to take the necessary first steps to allow us to compete in this global economy.

On Monday, MARTA will begin service to Avalon. That day, I will walk one short block from my home, board the North Springs train and transfer to the No. 140 bus. This is not a symbolic gesture intended to raise awareness. I now have an alternative to idling on Ga. 400, and I intend to take it. I hope our leadership recognizes they have an alternative. Our lives and livelihoods depend on it.

Mark Toro is managing partner of North American Properties, which recently developed Avalon in Alpharetta.