Leinberger also called bus rapid transit — which county chairman Tim Lee has asked Cobb voters to spend $689 million on by voting for the TSPLOST — “an experiment.”
And he said the goal of having a rail system is not for traffic relief, but for economic development.
Leinberger and William Fulton, a former mayor of Ventura, Calif., now with Smart Growth America, spoke at length about the need for metro Atlanta to have more “walkable urban” places such as Atlantic Station and Midtown instead of “drivable suburban” communities that require the use of cars.
Fulton highlighted this point by noting that his niece recently moved from Cobb County to Virginia Highland.
Also in attendance at the meeting were Cobb Manager David Hankerson, Cobb Chamber Chief Operating Officer Demming Bass and Michele Swann, CEO of the Cobb-Marietta Coliseum & Exhibit Hall Authority.
Following the lecture, Malaika Rivers, executive director for the Cumberland CID, referenced the July 31 transportation referendum to raise the sales tax for 10 years.
“If the referendum passes and the funds come into place, and the county determines that light rail is what they call the ‘locally preferred alternative,’ then by the end of this year we could very well be in a situation where we’re going to get a rail system in our future — let’s say 10 years down the road, more or less — so how again do we as community
members, as government partners, as private investors come together to maximize everybody’s return in investment in this community so that we can create this type of environment that these two have recommended to us?” Rivers asked. Leinberger said the No. 1 thing that needed to be done for Cumberland is to heavily invest in rail transit.
“It’s by far the most important investment you’re going to make,” he said. “The Europeans are spending 5, 7 percent of their GDP per year on infrastructure over the last decade. The Chinese … 8 percent. What have we been spending? 1.5 percent per year.”
Leinberger asked the CID board to keep in mind why rail is built.
“You do not build it to move people,” he said. “That is not your goal. That may sound counterintuitive, but that’s not why you build transportation systems, and again, particularly rail transit. For 6,000 years we’ve been doing this. You build transportation systems for economic development.”
CID board member Trey Parrish, a senior vice president with B.F. Saul Property Company, asked for examples of where bus rapid transit had made “walkable urban” communities successful.
Leinberger said the best example is in Cleveland, where that city’s Euclid Avenue line has shown “some” positive economic development.
“But I don’t think anybody is going to follow a Cleveland model for urbanism,” Leinberger said. “The jury’s out on bus rapid transit. We know rail transit works. I can show billions of dollars spent at a rail station. I’ve yet to really see the first dollar invested, private sector dollar invested, at a bus stop.”
Fulton, the former California mayor, who volunteered that he is the economic development columnist for Governing Magazine, which he described as “the leading magazine for state and local government in the country,” said developers follow rail lines because the rail is fixed.
“The big question is will middle class people ride buses,” Leinberger said. “They do in South America. They do in Europe. … but for the last 50 years truth in advertising with our bus systems, we should have a sign put over the door that would say, ‘only ye that are poor should enter,’ because that’s how we treat bus riders, and so most people who have a choice say, ‘I don’t want to go there.’ Ultimately, real estate developers are building for middle class and upper class folks, and it’s who is riding the bus rapid transit, and so far we haven’t gotten over that hump yet. I hope we will. … If it would work here it would work anywhere, so it would be a great experiment, but just remember, it’s an experiment. We know where rail transit can lead if you put the overlay zoning and do the place management, we know rail transit will lead to significant private sector investment around the stations. We don’t have proof yet that the BRT will lead to private sector investment.”
In his talk, Leinberger said comparison-wise, metro Atlanta’s sister city is Washington, D.C. The populations for both metropolitan regions are about 5.7 million, both are historically Southern towns, both are political capitals, both have been invaded in recent decades by Yankees, both are the top choice for middle and upper class black Americans and both received federal grants in the 1970s to build heavy rail.
But while Washington has 43 regionally significant “walkable urban” places — Dupont Circle, for example — metro Atlanta only has a few: Buckhead, Midtown, downtown and Decatur.
“And one of the major reasons is that you turned your back on MARTA,” Leinberger said. “You have so underinvested in MARTA, and of course we all know what MARTA really stands for. It’s not the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit. It is Moving African Americans Rapidly Through Atlanta. You’ve racialized it. The white suburban neighborhoods and places have completely ignored the economic development potential that MARTA could have been and will be in the future.”
By contrast, Washington has embraced its rail system, which is why it has been successful, he said.
County Chairman Tim Lee has also described opponents of a proposed rail line from Midtown to Cumberland Mall as racists.
CID board member Barry Teague, one of the owners of Walton Communities, noted how he is in the rental apartment business.
“We see several small towns in the north metro area that have good walkable communities downtown, and they would like to become more walkable and attract more people, but they do not want rental housing. They only want for sale housing.”
Teague asked for advice on that problem.
One of the properties he is referring to is in downtown Marietta. Last year, Walton purchased Meeting Park, the 12-acre property near Marietta Square that was hailed as the cornerstone of the city’s downtown development efforts until the economy crashed and it entered foreclosure.
Teague wants to build some apartments on the site, although Mayor Steve Tumlin and the City Council have made it clear that Marietta has too many apartments as it is.
Answering Teague’s question, Leinberger again brought up race.
“That’s been the bias, which is partly racially driven, but is partly because of the school system and the tax base and all that stuff,” he said.
CID Chairman Tad Leithead has asked his board to help fund a $190,000 study Leinberger would do of “walkable urban” communities in metro Atlanta. The board will consider the request at its next meeting on July 26.