As the Georgia General Assembly moved toward the close of the opening week of the 2018 session, the Metro Atlanta Chamber held it's annual Legislative Preview to share its public policy agenda. A brochure handed out at the annual preview listed four top priorities the Chamber is seeking to influence as the session progresses. They are: Business climate, transportation, education and workforce and water/energy/environment.
If there is a first among equals in those topics, based on the number of questions asked in the Q&A portion of the meeting, it can be summed up in one word: Transit, transit, transit. OK, that’s three words. But, you get the point. Transit is weighing heavily on the minds of people in the business community. And not just because Atlanta is one of the most traffic-clogged cities in the country.
The elephant in the room was also driving concerns and conversation. That elephant? Amazon. Or, more specifically, Amazon’s HQ2 and what city the Seattle-based economic Goliath will select for a second headquarters. Hanging in the balance of Amazon’s decision is a $15 billion investment that is expected to generate 50,000 well-paying jobs over time.
How big is that? Landing HQ2 would have a bigger impact on Atlanta than winning the 1996 Summer Olympics, according to some forecasts. The Games were a game-changer for Atlanta, igniting growth and spurring headquarters relocations on a scale that catapulted what had been a regional capital into a truly international city.
Currently, Atlanta’s signature public transportation agency, MARTA, only goes into two of the region’s 29-counties and serves just a fraction of the 6 million or more people who live here. Expanding transit is important because Amazon lists public transportation as one of the key requirements in its site selection checklist.
Dave Williams, MAC’s vice president of infrastructure and government affairs and one of three panelists at the Legislative Preview, said he is very optimistic that the current session of the General Assembly will produce positive proposals for transit governance and funding in metro Atlanta. “I’ve never been more optimistic for generational transit expansion,” Williams told the packed conference room at the Chamber. “MAC will be a part of that conversation,” he added. He is optimistic that transit expansion will include parts of heavily populated northern Fulton County plus the core metro counties of Gwinnett and Cobb. “It’s not ‘if’ but ‘how’ and in what magnitude.”
Hala Moddelmog, MAC president and CEO, underscored the importance of transit in attracting business. “The big wins we have had are due to transit.” In addition to being a boon to economic development and providing access to jobs, transit provides access to healthcare and relieves congestion, she added.
While there is support for transit expansion, Al Nash, executive director of the Development Authority for Fulton County, issued a cautionary note. “When we think of transit, we tend to think of heavy rail,” he said. “While Fulton County overwhelmingly supports transit expansion, that doesn’t mean rail exclusively.” Other transit options can include bus rapid transit as well as autonomous vehicles, he pointed out.
Another cautionary note: major transit projects such as heavy rail can take 10 years to be operational. And that’s from the time ground is broken on the construction portion of projects. Getting to the point of construction can also take years. So, whatever changes in transit, may be coming won’t happen overnight.
The more important point to the business community, it would appear from the meeting at MAC, is that there is reason for optimism that they will come.
Transit and other public policy issues are also important to Gov. Nathan Deal. If Atlanta makes Amazon’s short list, and all indications are that the city should be one of the lucky finalists, he is willing to call the Legislature back into a special session to try to seal the deal.
Other issues to watch during the 40-day session, according to Katie Kirkpatrick, MAC’s chief policy officer, are:
An anti-NFL bill over the kneeling controversy.
Confederate memorials and street names.
Taxes, including property taxes.
In year’s past, there have “red-meat issues” that have caused heated debate. These have included abortion, gun laws and religious freedom. So far, such an issue hasn’t surfaced for this session/s lawmakers. If one does bubble up, though, Kirkpatrick thinks it may involve taxes.
After all, it’s an election year. Stay tuned. “The Chamber will be watching closely,” Kirkpatrick promised.