Guest Commentary: Cathy Woolard on why T-SPLOST will get Atlanta back on its feet


“Over the last fifty years, metropolitan Atlanta overlooked neglected but valuable urban land in search of easy development in surrounding forests and farmland. More recently, the negative effects of urban sprawl have led to new development in in town Atlanta. But without providing an adequate public transportation system for our growing in population, congestion and pollution will diminish our cherished quality of life.

As local governments, companies and families look toward Atlanta’s future, a healthy regional discussion has emerged that examines how we grow Atlanta so that it will continue to thrive in the twenty-first century. Much the same way as an infrastructure of highways led to suburban expansion and urban depopulation in the last half century, an expansion of mass transit infrastructure will lead to both the revival of the inner city and the protection of our natural ecology and resources.”

The above paragraph is a summary of a concept I presented, along with Ryan Gravel, in the April 2002 issue of Southface Energy Institute Journal. Here we are, a decade later, with a tremendous opportunity before us—a significant expansion of the mass transit infrastructure Fulton and DeKalb counties have diligently supported over the past forty years.

Investments in transportation, specifically transit, spur economic development and help manage the impacts of increased density. Metropolitan Atlanta is on its back in terms of economic development opportunities. Out of the top 200 metropolitan areas around the globe, we have dropped from the top 25 in the nineties to presently ranking 189th in the world for economic vitality opportunities.

Nearly one in two home mortgages in this region is under water. Six out of the ten counties voting on the road and transit project list have unemployment rates higher than the both the national and state rate. We need to be realistic about where this city ranks on both the national and global scale. This referendum is one of those moments we must get right—much like the decision to build the Hartsfield Airport was.

The Atlanta BeltLine in particular is a golden opportunity for this city. The first transit phase of the Atlanta BeltLine—on the project list to be funded by passage of the July 31 transportation referendum—connects forty-five neighborhoods and many parks and schools and is within a half-mile of more than 140,000 jobs.

For many intown neighborhoods, this referendum provides a much needed sense of vitality and awareness, most notably in historic southwest communities such as Washington Park and West End.  Much like I-285 serves as the arc around I-75 / I-85, the Atlanta BeltLine serves as the arc around the spine of our transit infrastructure, MARTA. By directly connecting at two existing MARTA train stations and one newly constructed station, the BeltLine provides last-mile connectivity for thousands of students, workers, and intown residents desiring rail access to key regional destinations.  

Over a decade ago, we envisioned a concept that would add twenty-two miles of transit around our city. This referendum is the first step towards making those renderings come alive in the form of the largest transit project in the nation. More importantly, this referendum is the first step towards taking a regional approach to expanding our mass transit infrastructure and moving back towards the world-class city we used to be. I urge you to join me in voting yes for the future of transit in this city and this region.

Cathy Woolard is former president of the Atlanta City Council and an early advocate of the BeltLine.