MARTA, northern suburbs and streetcar

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

The mayor of Sandy Springs today expands on recent comments following the departure of World Pay for Atlanta. He writes of the need to take advantage of MARTA’s presence, because young workers value public transportation. Also, the developer of Avalon in Alpharetta urges the region’s leaders to bring MARTA farther north in Fulton County. Finally, the chief operating officer of the Atlanta Streetcar weighs in on the safety process after a couple of recent auto accidents involving the new vehicles.

OTP developers should embrace MARTA

By Rusty Paul

World Pay, you’re leaving us. We’re disappointed. You were a great Sandy Springs corporate citizen for years, but your present location is inadequate. So, you move on.

You could have gone to North Carolina, Texas or another technology hotbed, but decided to stay in the Atlanta metro region. Thank you! You realize that this region also has a world-class ecosystem of fresh technology talent, so why not tap it?

Not only can you draw from the emerging geniuses at the University of Georgia, Emory and Georgia Tech, you can access our skilled technical school students and increasingly dip into nearby engineering schools like Auburn and Clemson — universities graduating a significant pool of Georgia expatriates yearning for home.

After all, economic growth is not a zero-sum game, and it is unconfined by municipal borders. What benefits the region, benefits us all. Further, World Pay employees now living in Sandy Springs can stay here, continue contributing to our tax base and remain proud, productive community residents.

Interestingly, one reason you gave for departing is a desire to attract younger, urban-oriented, information-age workers. If that’s the case, why leave Sandy Springs? Our success in recruiting information-age residents and workers is why Google, AT&T and Comcast have targeted Sandy Springs for their state-of-the-art, high-speed fiber optic networks.

Simply stand outside any Sandy Springs MARTA station some morning. You will see young workers pour off the train from their urban environs, walking or biking to AirWatch, Cox Communications, UPS, Newell Rubbermaid, Compucredit, First Data, our three hospitals and a host of other Sandy Springs-based technology-oriented firms.

State Farm also needs these techno-wizards, so it is building a major facility on our border, a stone’s throw from Dunwoody’s MARTA station. In fact, World Pay is one of our few technology firms located outside the MARTA rail corridor.

MARTA is a key factor in attracting these urban technology workers to Sandy Springs. Unlike their parents, who hoped other people would ride MARTA so their drive to work would be easier, many millennials prefer transit.

Our challenge is getting developers to rethink their projects to seriously embrace transit within the rail corridor. This isn’t social engineering; it’s smart economics. No one wants to build empty monuments to lack of foresight.

Most businesses in this corridor don’t own their buildings, they lease. When mobility issues significantly affect employee morale and productivity, businesses like World Pay can exit as quickly as they arrive.

In Sandy Springs, we fortunately have two transportation networks; many metro communities do not. Yet one network — the road — is highly overburdened, and one — transit — is sadly underutilized.

Given today’s high land costs, developers (rightfully) say they need more density to make their projects work. Yet “business as usual” development forces jurisdictions to resist high density’s resulting traffic impact on quality of life.

A modest 15 percent increase in transit ridership at our four MARTA stations would remove thousands of cars from area streets and improve mobility for everyone. Do it, and we can talk about density.

Integrating transit into new development does require innovative thinking, but isn’t that the private sector’s strong suit? In Sandy Springs, we think so. That’s why we adopted our unique public/private service delivery strategy that has cut service costs, boosted citizen satisfaction, and freed resources to fund scores of new capital projects. Come on, private sector, you can do this!

Meanwhile, farewell World Pay. We will miss you. Thanks for staying in the Atlanta region. Yet, before you go, take one last glance around you.

Locate near one of our MARTA stations, and you can have the best of both worlds – a Sandy Springs address, and access to those bright info-age workers you seek.

Rusty Paul is mayor of Sandy Springs.

“Faster horses” not the answer

By Mark Toro

“I ride MARTA.” It’s a statement often met with a look of pity, or disbelief, or even disdain. It apparently surprises — even shocks — most people, that a dignified businessman or businesswoman actually uses metro Atlanta’s public transit system.

I’m sure it also will surprise my peers and competitors when they read that I often ride the train or bus. I have the option to drive my own car, or take Uber, whenever and wherever I want. But I choose MARTA.

The widespread aversion to public transit in Atlanta is a viewpoint that’s foreign to me, having been raised in the New York City area, where virtually everyone who had access to transit took advantage of it. The buses that come streaming into the Port Authority Terminal and the trains that come steaming into Grand Central Terminal each day carry people from all walks of life. And it has been that way for generations. There is no cultural or racial bias for, or against, transit. It is a way of life, just as a motorist-centric culture has become a way of life in Atlanta, a culture we cling to for fear of the unknown.

Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” This statement ironically refers to the automobile, something that was feared by the general populace of the time, simply because it was unknown. It has been applied any time that which is comfortable is challenged by that which has become practical. And just as ironically, it can now be applied to the replacement of the automobile as a viable vehicle for the future.

The expansion of public transit into north Fulton County has been playing catch-up since the connection of Ga. 400 in 1993, when economic development outside the Perimeter began a boom that has increased population, added jobs and prompted rampant development. With it came traffic, lots of it. For myriad reasons, not the least of which is the cultural and racial bias (a.k.a. fear) of our leadership, the reaction has been building “faster horses” by adding lanes to Ga. 400, stalling public transit at the North Springs station.

As many will recall, the development of the Dunwoody MARTA station in 1996 brought such uproar by the residents of Dunwoody that it’s no surprise development of the North Line has been halted at North Springs since 2000. Today, much of that opposition has fallen by the wayside as corporations base location decisions solely on the availability of transit.

Not only are these job creators and economic engines not fearful of MARTA, they are attracted to it. And whereas this has been a well-kept secret in Atlanta economic development circles, it was front-page news when State Farm officials chose to locate at a MARTA station, even asking MARTA if it could bring a connection directly into their lobby! It was a seminal moment, as employers sought that very accessibility that was so scorned in the past — making local municipalities sit up and take notice to the now undeniable demand: Provide the necessary infrastructure for our business, or we will take it elsewhere.

Unfortunately, that message has not reached decision-makers in north Fulton County, as many still see MARTA as only needing one stop — the airport — and so we build “faster horses.” And as our economic future is being impacted by our inability to manage our fear of the unknown, we sit idling on Ga. 400, the perfect metaphor for the indecision that plagues our leadership.

Yes, high hurdles stand in the way. Where will the station footprints fall? Should MARTA select sites east or west of Ga. 400? How will the enormous cost of heavy rail be funded? Many questions must be answered, and decisions made, to move this issue off dead center. It is time for the leadership of our region to take the necessary first steps to allow us to compete in this global economy.

On Monday, MARTA will begin service to Avalon. That day, I will walk one short block from my home, board the North Springs train and transfer to the No. 140 bus. This is not a symbolic gesture intended to raise awareness. I now have an alternative to idling on Ga. 400, and I intend to take it. I hope our leadership recognizes they have an alternative. Our lives and livelihoods depend on it.

Mark Toro is managing partner of North American Properties, which recently developed Avalon in Alpharetta.

Safety a mission for streetcar

By Michael Geisler

When we first began working on the Atlanta Streetcar, we had one overarching goal: to plan, build and operate the safest and best streetcar system in the United States. It’s an important investment in Atlanta’s future, and we are doing everything necessary to ensure the safety of this system.

Our commitment to safety includes constructing trackway and facilities that incorporate both new and time-tested streetcar technologies. We have brought in leading streetcar, rail, transit and safety experts from across the country to work with us, advise us, train us, and serve in management and operations positions. And we chose to use new Siemens S70 vehicles with the most advanced streetcar design and technology available.

Our streetcars and infrastructure have completed and passed numerous tests to ensure their safety and ability to perform under a variety of circumstances. We tested clearances, stop interfaces, communications, electrical power systems, traffic signals and emergency systems. Each vehicle has undergone a 50-mile burn-in period, operating continuously with no problems. These tests have been witnessed, accepted and documented by the streetcar’s Safety and Security committee, which includes members from the city, MARTA and contract personnel.

Our employees have been trained, tested and certified in every aspect of the system, from basic rail safety, vehicle orientation and customer service to risk and hazard analysis, emergency evacuations and fatigue management. Each operator came to us with a background in transit operations and now has more than 40 hours of time driving our vehicles.

Operators have a heightened sense of awareness about what to expect as they traverse the downtown corridor. We also have launched an extensive safety outreach program to help educate Atlanta’s drivers, pedestrians and cyclists about the need for them to increase their awareness around streetcars and ensure they obey traffic signals and limit lines.

Every day before the Atlanta Streetcars roll out on the route, maintenance personnel inspect tracks and overhead wires to ensure there are no hazards along the right of way. This is part of our track maintenance plan standard operating procedures.

Our training with the Atlanta Police Department and Atlanta Fire and Rescue has included vehicle familiarization, facility familiarization and use of emergency re-railing equipment. We recently conducted a full-scale exercise with these organizations to give our personnel a chance to practice many of these skills, and they performed admirably.

This entire process — from construction, to receiving the vehicles, to hiring and training personnel, to conducting and documenting each test — takes time. And time is the other element we’ve invested with the Atlanta Streetcar. We have taken time to go through this process thoroughly and correctly. We also want and need to be good stewards of our citizens’ tax dollars, which is why we have taken steps to conduct several of the necessary tests simultaneously to open the Atlanta Streetcar as soon as we can do so safely.

Michael Geisler is chief operating officer of the Atlanta Streetcar.

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