As a native of Metro Atlanta, I’m asked all the time: why didn’t you all plan better for all the people moving here? After stumbling for a good long while over answers, I’ve finally landed on one. The reason we have traffic issues isn’t a planning issue, it’s a funding issue.
Atlanta is chalk-full of brilliant planners who could very quickly solve all of our traffic woes — if money were no object. Sure, you would still have the dickering over how far heavy rail should be expanded versus building more lanes to every road. But if money flowed like Niagara Falls, so would the traffic.
I was a news reporter 20 years ago covering the City of Alpharetta. It was a much different town back then. It was still basking in the glow coming from North Point Mall and the new tech companies freshly installed along Windward Parkway. They were preparing a transportation plan that looked out 20 years I think it was. The plans walked them through road extensions, expansions and creations that would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars — way more than Alpharetta’s budget or any possible bond referendum could have handled. At the end of the presentation, the consultant said: “And if you do all of that, you’ll be able to maintain the traffic congestion that you currently have.”
I’m not sure how many of those projects got built, and I’m also not sure how much worse traffic is today than it was then. I do know that the planning was there.
That particular plan was actually being prepared for the Atlanta Regional Commission’s 25-year master plan overseeing all of the Metro Atlanta. And if you want to really influence how things get done and how money gets appropriated, pay attention to the Atlanta Regional Commission.
My monthly podcast affords me the opportunity to talk to some of the metro area’s most brilliant, connected and influential people responsible for many of the projects being built today. This month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kerry Armstrong, the current chairman of the ARC, the past chairman of the Council for Quality Growth and a managing director at one of the area’s largest commercial developers, Pope & Land.
“The ARC is a complicated beast that to most people deals in transportation issues,” he said. “(But it) is the only agency involved in long-term planning using key disciplines that impact our entire region. At our heart we’re planners, but somewhere along the way we become involved in how money is allocated in resources and strategies and those sorts of things.”
The ARC is made up of a commission filled with mayors, county commissioners, professionals and residents. It has a huge staff of planners and data-hounds who live 25 years into the future. The ARC is best known for creating the metro area’s 25-year master plan, which mashes together projects submitted by local governments with those submitted by regional governments and entities. Projects are given priority by the ARC and you can bet that those projects with the highest priority are first in line when it comes to finding regional funding.
“A lot of the 25-year plan is aspirational,” Armstrong said. “If we had all the money in the world, this is what (the area) would look like.”
Seeing 25 years into the future is no easy task, even for the ARC.
“When you look at things, particularly transportation, 25 years ago, no one thought or imagined something like Lyft or Uber would exist,” he said. “The art to it is being very nimble and understanding how disruptions and changes and where the trend lines are going and the likely possibilities and continually adjusting the plan.”
One of the things the ARC is expecting is an influx of more than 2.6 million people to the 20-county metro region over the next 20 or so years.
“That’s roughly the equivalent of moving Charlotte here,” he said.
So if we want to be prepared for that, I think we better start looking for the money. We got the planners.
Geoff Smith is a mortgage banker with Assurance Financial focusing on residential home loans for refinances and home purchases.
*The views and opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of Assurance Financial Group