Opinion: Council should take time to get Gulch deal right

In 1996 the Campbell Administration presented the Atlanta City Council with a program that would allow vendors to set up all over the city during the Olympic Games. Visitors would be able to make purchases easily and it would be an economic boost to the vendors. We were also told this project would bring about $3 million into the city’s coffers.

We got this proposal on a Tuesday before a Monday Council meeting, and were told that it had to be passed right away if it was to be successful. We passed it. It was not successful. In fact, it lowered Atlanta’s esteem during what should have been a crowning moment.

Now the present administration has handed the City Council a proposal that could funnel some $2 billion into a project to build on the Gulch downtown, and they have been told that it must pass now, or some unnamed Fortune 500 company won’t relocate to Atlanta.

We all know the Gulch needs help, and we’ve been looking for answers for nearly 40 years now. The Multimodal Passenger Terminal, or MMPT, first proposed by the Metro Atlanta Chamber in the 1980s, was going to be the thing that would make the Gulch great again. Planning proceeded for it through the 1990s and it even received approval by the Environmental Protection Agency.

In the early 2000s, Atlanta’s then-Director of Planning Michael Dobbins brought forth a proposal that would make the Gulch shine like a jewel. The MMPT was included, but it was not visible. Like New York’s Penn Station, it would be below a new network of streets, plazas, towers, and all sorts of good things. It was a brilliant concept, and the private sector would pay for much of it.

That concept is back, sort of. It is full of beautiful streets and buildings that will cover the Gulch. It will put millions into the city’s coffers — eventually. The difference is that this proposal does not include any provisions or requirement for a below-street commuter and intercity passenger rail and bus facility.

The MMPT concept was dropped from the GDOT planning books several years ago. It may also be gone from Atlanta’s planning, too. A few years back Norfolk Southern told GDOT and the City that there was no way that they could accommodate passenger trains on their tracks into the city. And then there is the state’s pervasive lack of interest in doing anything about transportation that doesn’t primarily focus on rubber tires on pavement.

It would be terrible for the City to preclude a rail passenger facility in the Gulch. It is an ideal place to bring people from all points on the map to our city’s center. It is the place from where the city grew; where we began our reputation as the Gate City of the South.

I don’t believe that leaving an MMPT out of these new plans would kill all hopes for intercity and commuter passenger rail for Atlanta, but it would make it that much more difficult — if not impossible — to serve the city center. I am not holding my breath on this deal just because there might or might not be a multimodal station facility included.

But as a former member of our City Council who knows something about “urgent legislation,” and as a city taxpayer, for a project this huge and this complex, I insist that the Council not rush to judgment as some are demanding.

You are being told that this Must Be Passed Now because there is an anonymous Fortune 500 company out there that won’t locate to Atlanta if this particular deal does not go forward immediately. You, as an elected representative with a fiduciary responsibility to our City, must keep in mind that, even if the Council does approve this at its next meeting, there’s no guarantee that this alleged firm will come. Also, I imagine that there are other Fortune 500 companies that’d come here without insisting that you first put $2 billion on the line.

Please, Council members, take your time and make a thoughtful, considered decision. Councilman Matt Westmoreland put it well in the AJC: “I want this deal to happen. But I also want to be thoughtful and deliberative and I have seven pages of questions.”

Everything in this proposal may be in order. But for all of us whom you represent I ask you not to take anyone’s word on that, not even the Mayor’s. Get your questions answered— you have that right and that responsibility. Know what you are voting on, thoroughly, intimately, completely.

That way, your constituents who elected you to these offices will know that our City, with or without an MMPT, is heading in a good direction.

Former Atlanta City Councilman Doug Alexander is working to build a rail advocacy group called “Americans for Rail Transportation” to support freight, passenger and transit rail initiatives.

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