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.