Look to The Past for Transportation’s Future

In the upcoming T-SPLOST vote, the past provides us the best measure of the future, and two examples from history illustrate what can be expected from either outcome in this election.

We are facing a historic decision about transportation that – one way or another – people will talk about for decades to come.  In many ways it will define our legacy.


We can look to history for two examples of just such decisions and how history remembers those who were tasked with making them.


The first is the Atlanta Airport.  The decision to invest in an “air port” seems obvious today, but in 1925 it was unheard of.  Fully seven years after the First World War, no one had yet developed a commercially viable use for the airplane.


With weight being the limiting factor in air transport, mail delivery was the obvious first step, yet that had failed some 6 years earlier despite hundreds of thousands of dollars (millions in today’s money) in both government and private investment, along with the loss of dozens of lives.


In fact, it would take another 17 months after Atlanta leased a defunct automobile race track located well outside of the city as a municipal air port before another attempt at airmail would be made.  It failed in just three months.


Undeterred, the city invested even more money to install state-of-the-art electric lighting, as well as the exotic electrical infrastructure necessary to power it.  (Rural electrification was still 10 years away.)  All of this in order to accommodate night operations when, and if, commercial aviation ever became feasible – an accomplishment that had yet to be achieved in a clear, day-lit sky.


It wasn’t until 18 months later that Pitcairn Aviation (the forerunner of Eastern Airlines) launched a third attempt to make air mail service work.  At the same time, the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce led an all-out campaign to garner support for the city council and mayor to buy the land outright, build additional facilities, and make further improvements to support the fledgling private endeavor that now stood teetering precariously at the edge of the nest.


With less than a single year of air mail service under its belt, Atlanta invested the staggering sum of nearly a half-million additional dollars to buy and upgrade the port facilities that they hoped would one day support the futuristic dream of commercial transportation through the very air itself.


By the end of 1930, the Atlanta Municipal Airport, while one of the nation's busiest, had achieved an average of just 16 planes per day passing through this new "port."


But Atlanta never looked back, and we’ve patted ourselves on the back – and rightly so - ever since for our vision, our faith in ourselves and in the future, and our shrewd investment in an economic engine for the entire region.


The second example of a historic decision comes from the Downtown Connector. Even in the 1920s, Atlanta’s traffic was a chronic and stifling drag on the city.  In 1946, the city finally adopted the Lochner Plan whose centerpiece was a hub-and-spoke unit of four short, limited access highways radiating just a couple of miles from the central business district to relieve traffic congestion on surface streets like Peachtree and Spring.


Ten years later, the federal government provided the funding mechanism for interstate highways, not only through rural areas, but through urban centers as well.  While the funding was new, the plans were almost a generation old, and they were going to be a boon to Atlanta.


The two main north-south Interstates east of the Mississippi, I-75 west of the Appalachians and I-85 to their east, would both come through Atlanta.  Finally Atlanta wouldn’t have to fight for its claim to legitimacy as a first-rate center of commerce.  Yet the city that had always managed to unite – especially where economic advancement was at stake – turned on itself.


As the years passed, not a single proposed route for these Interstates could gain approval.  Finally, in desperation, the city was forced to make a decision that was doomed to failure from the very start.  The two main Interstates east of the Mississippi would simply have to merge, supplanting the already outdated limited access highways of the old Lochner Plan.


The downtown connector was born . . . and we’ve been kicking ourselves for the last 50 years.


Our choice on July 31st is whether future generations will look at us and say, “Thank goodness they had the vision and guts that it took to seize these opportunities, overcome the obstacles, and make the tough decisions that paved the way for the future” just like we do with the airport.


Or will they look at us and ask, “Why didn’t they do something about this when they had the chance?”  “Why couldn’t they see how foolish it all was?”  “Why did they leave it to us to solve when it’s so much harder now?”  “What happened to their vision, their faith, and their courage?”


It’s easy to point out flaws.  It’s easy to tear things down, but those reasons always fade quickly to insignificance and, if remembered at all, are written in history as mere excuses for possibilities lost.  In the future we will have to live with success or failure, and to do nothing is the worst kind of failure.  Instead, I urge the people of this vast 10-county region to look to the past for the inspiration to meet the challenges of the future with courage, vision, and faith in ourselves, just as an earlier generation did with an idea as outlandish as commercial aviation.

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bulldogger July 24, 2012 at 12:30 PM
Yeah, Rob Hill, thanks for the history lesson; however, you're trying to compare those nice achievements from the past to this "Rinky-Dink" of a referendum which will do nothing much to help the traffic flow in Metro Atlanta. Surely a person who writes with such eloquence can see that "A streetcar line from MLK Center to Centennial Park" isn't gonna do anything to relieve congestion on the streets of Atlanta.......oh, I forgot to mention "there is serious NO CONGESTION on the streets of Downtown Atlanta because "no one goes to Downtown Atlanta anymore". Also, the "Beltline" is another project that may spur a little development, but IT DOES NOTHING TO RELIEVE TRAFFIC CONGESTION (IF ANY) IN Atlanta. You also forgot to mention all of the additional regulations we have now that we didn't have during the times of our greatest achievements that will take a great percentage of the tax money collected to fulfill. This is billed as a TEN YEAR TAX.....with a good portion of the money collected having to be used to fulfill the regulation requirements, THERE WON'T BE ENOUGH MONEY LEFT AFTER PAYING FOR ALL THE ADMINISTRATIVE COSTS TO FINISH ALL THE PROJECTS IN TEN YEARS. Please pardon my hollering, but you proponents of this boondoggle of a referendum are not listening to the people. You're just trying to "Cram this down our throats" like "Obamacare". You've probably guessed by now that I'll be voting.....NONONONONONONONONONO on July 31st.
Jack of Kings July 24, 2012 at 12:39 PM
I agree, T-SPLOST is part transportation and part mish mash "stimulus" package for developers. People are getting tired of getting tapped through taxes so others get rich. Next thing you know, Atlanta taxpayers will pay for a new stadium for the Falcons! ...Nah, that wouldn't happen. That would be ridiculous.
Carol Johnson July 24, 2012 at 01:10 PM
"Next thing you know, Atlanta taxpayers will pay for a new stadium for the Falcons!" Nothing makes my blood boil more ferociously than the idea of Artie Blanck sucking from the Hotel and Visitor tax revenue stream. That wealth belongs to Atlantans and not a billionaire. What a farce, the existing stadium is gorgeous, this is the HEIGHT of waste.
Rob Hill July 25, 2012 at 12:08 AM
Bulldogger, first of all, the streetcar project to which you refer will require around $33.6 million in additional funding to complete (about 0.4% of the T-SPLOST funds) – and I’m not sure if any of that will even come from the T-SPLOST. Second, I was just Downtown, and I saw a whole lot of people there. The Beltline projects do offer mass transit options that, by definition, do relieve congestion. As for additional regulations, those are certainly a large part of the costs and do limit the choice of projects, but these regulations are not part of this referendum – they were already in place, and we’re stuck with them. There are, however, other elections, both local and national, in which government regulation is a key part of the decision. In the meantime, the costs of compliance with the menagerie of regulations have most certainly been fully factored into the budgets. Finally, this is not a referendum on government seizing control of private sector commerce. The referendum deals exclusively with the most basic and fundamental role of government in our republic – building roads, bridges and related transportation infrastructure to support commercial and private transportation. What is more, it offers far more grass-roots oversight and control than any such initiative in our nation’s history. Frankly, for those of us who abhor government encroachment and largesse, this is a model for reining in such abuses.
Rob Hill July 25, 2012 at 12:13 AM
Phil, I frankly don’t know how to respond to the assertion that some undelineated portion of the project list falls into the undefinable classification of “mish mash ‘stimulus’ package” for the exclusive benefit of unspecified “developers”. Tax money spent on transportation infrastructure is justified by the very fact that it will enrich the widest variety of people by facilitating overall economic activity. A road aids commerce for years beyond the payment of the construction workers and has been recognized as a worthy investment of the resources of the citizenry – with a consistently healthy return on investment for the broadest segment of the population – since before the Roman Empire. There is also no correlation whatsoever between the passage of this 10-county referendum and some imagined future tax on the citizens of Atlanta to fund a new stadium.
Rob Hill July 25, 2012 at 12:15 AM
Carol, rest assured, this referendum will in no way further any designs on the part of anyone to build a new stadium. It will, however, build and expand hundreds of miles of roads, bridges, and overpasses that will be accessible and beneficial to everyone.
Bryan Farley July 26, 2012 at 09:47 AM
First, the streetcar isn't even part of the T SPLOST. Second, no one goes downtown? Are you kidding? Comments like these are from uninformed people who are voting no just because they don't want another tax or support services that will better enhance the city, not just in transportation options but development as well.
Erik July 26, 2012 at 10:33 AM
"Here is my plan B: Instead of ramming a bailout of MARTA down our throats, lets identify 10 major road congestion areas that impact regional traffic flow. The classics and 285/400, 285/20, and 400/85. Fund improvement to those intersections by moving the 1% sales tax on gas from the general treasury back to these projects ($175M/year). In less than 3 years, we could pay for these important projects." Stolen from poster over here: http://www.peachpundit.com/2012/07/23/reluctantly-no-on-t-splost/
bulldogger July 26, 2012 at 01:52 PM
Rob, I know it's in your best interests to see that this referendum is passed and I'm very sure you're doing all you can to urge all those in the construction businesses that will be affected by the referendum to go to the polls en masse to vote "Yes".....I mean, after all your's and some of their jobs that are at stake; however, Rob, I have to call it as I see it......this is just another "Jobs Program".....it will do nothing whatsoever to relieve congestion on our roads. I am also sure that you want to see a "Low Voter Turnout" to ensure passage. My suggestion would be for you to demand that the GADOT remove all their "Road Construction Two Miles Ahead Signs" that are the biggest cause of "Bumber to Bumber Traffic in Metro Atlanta". Drivers see these signs and automatically slow down whether there's road construction or no road construction. My opinion is that these signs are purposefully placed in strategic locations on our highways to slow traffic down to help the TSPLOST referendum to pass. A "NO" vote on this referendum will send a message that "we the people/voters" don't see this as a viable way to relieve congestion on our streets and highways AND WE DON'T WANT/NEED ANY MORE NEW TAXES.
bulldogger August 01, 2012 at 06:58 PM
Hey Rob Hill, good fight and nice try, but we, the NO voters won. Well, back to the drawing board......no, wait.....what about the Northern Arc, an idea whose time has come......talk about relieving traffic congestion, this will do it.


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