At Issue: Atlanta’s Transportation Future

Atlanta’s transportation network includes railroads, MARTA trains and buses, freeways, bike paths and the world’s busiest airport. Georgia Tech alumni and faculty have played a significant role in shaping that infrastructure, and now Ramblin’ Wrecks are helping plan Atlanta’s transportation systems of the future.

Adapt, Improvise, Innovate

Keith Golden, CE 86, MS CE 89, and Todd Long, CE 89, MS CE 90, are the commissioner and deputy commissioner, respectively, of the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Georgia transportation funding is in a time of transition. Much hard-asset infrastructure, like the Interstate System, is 50-plus years old and in need of significant rehabilitation, if not replacement. Unaddressed, congestion will stifle growth and the city’s vibrancy. Billions of dollars are needed for long-term solutions.

Anything close to that amount, however, is not likely to be available—at least not from traditional sources. The prevailing view is that foreseeable federal funding will remain static or decline, perhaps as much as 25-30 percent. July’s rejection of the T-SPLOST one-cent sales tax referendum showed a majority of Georgians oppose increased state transportation taxes for a variety of reasons. For the 46 counties that did pass the transportation sales tax, expect to see growth as they resolve many of their transportation problems.

Our mission is to continue transforming the bureaucracy into a responsive, customer-focused enterprise making better use of the Department of Transportation’s 4,300 dedicated employees. We aim to implement initiatives like variable speed limits, flex and auxiliary lanes, signal synchronization and immediate incident response to maximize the efficiency of our existing infrastructure. We strive to eliminate inefficiencies and privatize work when it makes sense to do so. We want to develop more public-private partnerships and managed toll lanes when they best serve mobility and taxpayer interests, and we’ll focus available resources on projects that yield the highest benefit/cost ratio to Georgia.

It is a daunting challenge. But thanks to Tech, we know we are well prepared.

Build Upon Existing Vision

Ryan Gravel, Arch 95, M Arch/CP 99, imagined the Atlanta BeltLine—a 22-mile path for pedestrians, bicycles and light rail circling Atlanta—in 1999 as his Tech master’s thesis; he is now a senior urban designer with Perkins+Will.

T-SPLOST, the proposed penny sales tax that would have raised $8.5 billion for roads and transit in metro Atlanta, suffered defeat at the polls on July 31.

Explanations for this are as divided as the vote. What is clear is that developing a nuanced plan to address the varied transportation needs in a diverse, sprawling region is challenging, and the politics of doing so are even more challenging.

But instead of starting from scratch, what if we built on a bold, sustainable vision already underway?

In the 1960s, Fulton and DeKalb counties and the City of Atlanta began to build the current MARTA rail system.

With nearly half a million boardings every weekday, MARTA is now America’s ninth-largest system. It consistently ranks among the most cost-efficient and cost-effective systems in the country and contributes significantly to Georgia’s transportation solutions.

But it receives essentially no money from the state. MARTA was last expanded over a decade ago. Complaints about the rail system “not going anywhere” are explained by our lack of investment in it.

The original MARTA Act was far more aspirational and visionary than T-SPLOST, but it was not entirely successful because three of metro Atlanta’s five core counties opted not to participate. Perhaps now the time is right.

Clayton, Cobb and Gwinnett Counties—which stand to gain the most from transit expansion—could buy into the system right away.

With significant demographic shifts taking place in these counties, and with leadership changes underway at MARTA, now is the perfect time to leverage our existing assets, mend relationships and move forward with a shared vision befitting Georgia’s role in the global economy.

This story originally appeared in the February issue of the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine. Photos by Josh Meister.

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  • Keith Golden and Todd Long

  • Ryan Gravel

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