A plan to help Atlanta think big

The AJC’s recent Atlanta Forward series focused attention on the key challenges and corresponding opportunities facing the Atlanta region over the coming decades. We are at a critical juncture, a crossroads in our metro area’s development and future prosperity. It is vital that we move forward with clear vision and bold action. We must look long term at the big picture and what we want metro Atlanta to be in the next decade, and beyond.

As a regional leader and planning agency, the Atlanta Regional Commission recently adopted Plan 2040, a sweeping regional blueprint to sustain metro Atlanta’s livability, quality of life and prosperity through midcentury. It will guide decisions and investments as the region prepares to add some 3 million residents.

Plan 2040 is based on the triple bottom line of economic, environmental and social sustainability. Yes, it addresses highways, transit and other physical infrastructure. But it also includes policies and investments that shape livable communities, protect the environment and grow jobs.

ARC’s nationally recognized Livable Centers Initiative will continue to invest in growing communities where infrastructure already exists. Over the last decade, ARC has allocated more than $195 million in planning and transportation funds to 107 distinct areas in the region. These dollars are helping to connect homes, shops and offices, enhance streetscapes and sidewalks, emphasize pedestrians, improve access to transit and expand housing choices.

Plan 2040 is a dynamic and flexible plan. We know that as our population changes, we must continue to respond. The plan addresses the growing number of older adults through such efforts as Lifelong Communities. The number of residents over the age of 60 will explode in the coming years, and the region will need more places that offer a variety of housing and transportation options, encourage healthy lifestyles and increase access to goods for seniors. Local Lifelong Communities are springing up all over the region, from Mableton, East Point and Atlanta to DeKalb and Clayton counties. The eventual result will be places where individuals can live more fully, throughout their lifetimes.

To maintain our high quality of life, we must protect the scenic and cultural heritage of our region. Plan 2040 includes a Regional Resource Plan that provides an inventory of important natural areas and historic and cultural resources. It flags those that may be particularly vulnerable to development and offers strategies and best practices that local governments can use to protect them.

The 30-year, $61 billion Regional Transportation Plan in Plan 2040 provides new options for residents including expanded rail and bus transit, HOT lanes to manage congestion on freeways, improvement of key interstate interchanges, additional sidewalk and bicycle infrastructure, roadway expansions and system optimization. And, if voters approve the transportation referendum in 2012, we can nearly double the amount of new improvements Plan 2040 can deliver in just 10 years.

The challenges confronting our region are complex and do not lend themselves to simple solutions. Nor can one organization or agency do the job alone. The combined leadership of our region: local governments — both counties and cities, the state, planning partners and the citizens themselves — all must play a part in moving our region forward.

The steps we take in the next few years, starting now, will set a positive direction for our great region in the decades to come. We now have in place an overarching strategy to focus our leadership on the big picture and to measure our progress toward regional goals. Plan 2040 is that blueprint.

Tad Leithead is chairman of the ARC.