Regional transportation: Unity the only way to go

Atlanta Forward / The Editorial Board's Opinion:We won’t improve our highways, roads and mass transit options until we accept our geographic and political boundaries aren’t barriers to solutions.

Highways, free-moving ones at least, are in critically short supply around here. That shortage applies also to lesser roads, mass transit and other transportation options. This in a region that has continued to slowly grow through a deep recession.

Things won’t improve until we recognize once and for all that transportation problems are no respecters of the many geographic and political boundaries found here.

That means we must work together toward forward-thinking solutions. Or we can bicker and decline both separately and as a whole. It’s that simple and the choice is ours.

In our view, the most productive path forward is for the region to think and act as one on transportation matters. That will yield the best results for us all. In an area as large as ours, we also need to cooperate closely with adjacent regions, where many Atlantans live and work. Working across boundaries on this issue of mutual benefit must become part of the “Atlanta Way” formula that has leapfrogged us past competing cities.

It was no accident that the 2010 transportation sales tax law set up 12 regions around the state. That struck a balance between the need for shared solutions and the strong desire for a measure of local control.

No one should assert that voter approval next year of the Transportation Special-Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax would address all, or even most, of our issues. That said, given the enormousness of needs and the profound scarcity of transportation funding in Georgia, the T-SPLOST is our best tool now for creating a dedicated revenue stream that would put billions of dollars toward smoothing out some of the largest rough spots that slow our mobility.

Today, this newspaper begins an eight-day report on issues facing each county in the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable. Seeing the whole as a grouping of county-level parts is an important step toward understanding how the many proposals could combine to benefit the entire area.

None of this will work without regional unity. We’ve seen encouraging signs of that happening as the T-SPLOST push gathers momentum. If the cross-border focus weakens or, worse yet, disintegrates between now and the 2012 vote, our best hope for speeding some journeys around town collapses, too. That outcome must be avoided or we will all continue to incur the cost of inefficient commutes fueled by $4 a gallon gasoline.

There’s a lot riding on getting this right. A report this month by the Brookings Institution notes that, “The journey to work literally defines U.S. metropolitan areas.” It goes on to say that, “More immediately, transportation matters for establishing a broad-based economic recovery.”

Lest some counties come to believe that transportation, more specifically transit, will remain an urban problem, the Brookings report notes the “supply-side” problem of linking growing suburban communities and their residents with jobs, particularly in lower-income areas. The study says the South “accounts for 7 of the 10 metro areas with the lowest shares of jobs accessible via transit.”

Using a combined ranking of access to transit and jobs, metro Atlanta ranked 91 among 100 U.S. cities, just above Richmond, Va. The bottom tenth is not for us, not if Atlanta intends to remain a force in the national and global economy.

Metro Atlanta has long been a magnet for people, jobs and investment. That dynamic will continue only if we’re seen as a region that has its act together. Moving ahead in a post-recession world requires thinking and acting collaboratively to address common challenges that threaten to cork our potential.

Not every city has been able to do this. An inability to coalesce around big issues has caused some other U.S. metros to slowly slide into obscurity, with a resulting loss of jobs and taxpayers.

That’s not a future any of us want for the commerce capital of the South.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board

Atlanta Forward: We look at major issues Atlanta must address in order to move forward as the economy recovers.

Look for the designation “Atlanta Forward,” which will identify these discussions.