2 Southern Cities, 2 (Very) Different Approaches to Transit

When it comes to transportation planning, Atlanta and Nashville are both at a crossroads.
September 2018
Both Nashville, left, and Atlanta, right, have terrible traffic and inadequate transit systems. But the two cities’ appetite for change is different. (Shutterstock)
Alan Ehrenhalt
By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor

Nearly two decades ago, the Georgia General Assembly gambled on a radical redistribution of political authority in metropolitan Atlanta. It created a superagency -- the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, or GRTA for short -- and granted it the right to dictate transportation and land use decisions in the 13 counties surrounding the city.

GRTA’s formal powers were awesome. It could stop the state highway department from building a new road. It could block construction of a regional shopping center. It could build a brand-new transit system and force the suburban counties to pay for it. It made the governor of Georgia, Democrat Roy Barnes at the time, a virtual czar of transportation. It wasn’t entirely in jest that GRTA’s critics said the initials actually stood for “Give Roy Total Authority.”

That was in 1999. Now, all these years later, it’s possible to render a verdict on what GRTA actually accomplished. The answer is virtually nothing.

Barnes was defeated for reelection in 2002, and his successor, Republican Sonny Perdue, wasn’t interested in using the unilateral powers that the legislature had bequeathed him. Perdue preferred the old-fashioned practice of making horse trades with the state Transportation Department. Perdue’s Republican successor, Nathan Deal, wasn’t a GRTA fan either. Last year, he and the legislature finally put the once-powerful superagency out of its misery, folding it into the State Road and Tollway Authority.

All of this would just be a morsel of odd urban history were it not for the fact that Georgia decided this year to try something that might be called GRTA Redux. The legislature has established a new superagency: the Atlanta-region Transit Link Authority (ATL). ATL will be charged with knitting together plans made by the 13 metro counties into a genuine regional transportation strategy.

ATL backers are talking about it in the same dramatic language that was used to inaugurate GRTA in the first place. “I really believe this will be transformational,” Republican Brandon Beach, the plan’s Senate sponsor, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which in turn called the agency the “most sweeping expansion of transit” enacted in the past 40 years.

Why would an idea that failed dismally just a few years ago have a chance to work now? There is at least one plausible reason. ATL will speak a good bit more softly than GRTA did. The new law gives each of the 13 counties permission to impose a 1 percent sales tax for transit projects, but first the increase must be put to a public vote.

Because the law requires counties to opt in if they want to participate, it could end up stumbling as GRTA did. Several county leaders have already said there’s no consensus for an extra penny of sales tax among their constituents. In some counties, there may never be such a consensus. But there’s also a pervasive sense among the political leadership that much of metro Atlanta is simply in a different frame of mind than it was two decades ago.

It’s a frame of mind that doesn’t exist these days in Nashville. A few weeks after Deal signed the ATL bill into law in Georgia, Nashvillians humiliated the city’s business community and much of its political elite by decisively voting against a proposal that would have provided $5.2 billion for 26 miles of light rail, four bus rapid transit lines and four new crosstown bus routes, among other things. As in Georgia, the funding mechanism for this massive expansion was to be a 1-cent sales tax increase, but 30 of Nashville’s 35 metro council districts wanted no part of it.

Some aspects of Atlanta’s situation also prevail in Nashville. Traffic is bad there, not as bad as in Atlanta, but getting worse: The average Nashville driver has been estimated to spend 33 hours stuck in traffic every year. If there were a national register of gridlocked places, the Tennessee city would be a candidate for it. The chamber of commerce in Nashville felt strongly, as did the one in Atlanta, that failure to create a 21st-century transportation system would impose a heavy penalty when it came to business recruitment. None of that seemed to matter very much to the voters.

What happened in Nashville can be explained in part by short-term political events that have been widely reported. Earlier this year, Mayor Megan Barry, the leading advocate for the transit sales tax, was forced out of office in a sex scandal. And Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group run by the billionaire Koch brothers, spent generous amounts of cash on a sophisticated political effort to convince voters to reject the proposal.

All of that might account for why Nashville’s transit plan fell short, but not for the sheer magnitude of the rejection. More than 78,000 voted against it, and fewer than 44,000 voted for it. Those numbers are better explained by a brief excursion into geography and demographics.

Nashville has a unified city-county government; it’s 526 square miles, whereas Atlanta is 134. So neighborhoods that would be outside the boundaries of many cities are within the Nashville city limits. These outer neighborhoods, such as Bellevue, Forest Hills, Hermitage and Old Hickory, opposed the transit plan in numbers much greater than the 64-36 citywide margin. In some of these places, the no vote approached 90 percent, largely because these communities didn’t feel a kinship with the central city and saw no reason to pay for a light rail system that would mainly benefit downtown Nashville and a few surrounding districts. Some of the light rail lines would have ended several miles from the outlying neighborhoods.

Looking at the Nashville result offers some useful lessons in how not to campaign for a transit program. Looking at Nashville and Atlanta together suggests that the two cities are passing through different stages in their history.

For more than 50 years, the booming suburbs north of Atlanta have based much of their land use policy around one central idea: Stay away from anything Atlanta wants to do, especially when it comes to transportation. Cobb and Gwinnett counties, which together hold more than a million people, repeatedly refused to participate in MARTA, the metro Atlanta transit system. As a result, MARTA only covers the city itself and a few close-in suburban communities. Cobb and Gwinnett, meanwhile, had virtually no reliable public transportation well into the 21st century.

There’s a reason why that happened, although it’s not a particularly inspiring reason. Cobb and Gwinnett were middle-class refuges for white Atlantans who weren’t keen on living in integrated neighborhoods or sending their children to schools with diverse populations. In 1990, Cobb County was 86 percent white; Gwinnett was 89 percent white.

They haven’t stayed that way. By the time the 2010 Census was taken, the white population in Cobb was below 60 percent. Gwinnett didn’t even have a white majority. In fact, Gwinnett’s racial demographics were moving closer to the diversity that existed in Atlanta itself. This wasn’t due to a mass migration of African-Americans out of the central city; it had more to do with growing numbers of Hispanic and Asian newcomers.

But the bottom line is that white flight doesn’t exist in Atlanta the way it once did -- not unless a homebuyer is willing to settle 40 or 50 miles outside the city limits. Atlanta and its biggest suburbs are not only starting to look alike; they are starting to think alike. Increasingly, the things that matter in Atlanta have started to matter in Cobb and Gwinnett as well.

The political leadership in these suburbs readily admits it. “We have a lot more people in the county now, and they bring in a different perspective,” Cobb County Commissioner Mike Boyce told me recently. State Rep. Kevin Tanner, a Republican who sponsored the 2018 transit bill in the Georgia House, told me the same thing. “The suburban mindset is changing,” he said. “This would have been out of the question 10 years ago.”

Numbers back this up. In a 2017 poll, a majority of respondents in Cobb County said they viewed transit as the best long-term transportation solution. In another survey, 56 percent in Gwinnett and Fulton counties said they’d pay more in taxes for a better transportation system.

Those answers may be misleading. It’s possible that when Atlanta’s suburban voters actually have to vote on paying for transit, as they will in the next couple of years, they will be thinking differently. But the current climate of opinion in places like Cobb and Gwinnett suggests that metropolitan Atlanta is finally beginning to perceive itself as one region.

That’s something Nashville isn’t ready to do. Residents of the affluent outlying communities there are voting more like the Atlanta suburbanites of 1990 than those of 2018. But Atlanta’s metropolitan diversity reflects changes that are taking place in much of urbanized America. Most likely, Nashville will eventually see them too. Just not for a while.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this column incorrectly reported that the Atlanta-region Transit Link Authority had been authorized to receive revenue from a new 50 cent fee on taxi and ride-shared trips and a 1 percent fee on airport concessions. Final determination of the organization's revenue structure will be made in the next legislative session.