Friday, June 18, 1999
Local governments shouldn't worry about losing local control to Gov. Roy Barnes' new transportation super agency, Fayette icon Joel Cowan told The Citizen Friday.
You won't see micro-management. Local governments have home rule. They should not fear us, Cowan said after taking the helm of the new Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.
Forty years ago, Cowan looked at a patch of pines and Georgia red clay and decided to create a master-planned community. The result of his vision is Peachtree City, which has drawn national attention for its unique blend of residences, industry and retail business, all working in harmony.
Cowan has followed a number of business and political pursuits over the years, including involvement in developing Phipps Plaza, business dealings in China and managing the political campaign and gubernatorial office of Joe Frank Harris.
Late last week, he started work as chairman of GRTA, which may be his toughest assignment to date.
GRTA (or Greta, as it's called) was established by this year's General Assembly as an agency to deal with metropolitan Atlanta's transportation and dirty air problems.
The authority was the brainchild of the governor, who gave it sufficient muscle to implement its programs and also provided a funding mechanism of $2 billion in bonds to get the programs moving.
Last Wednesday, the agency had its first meeting. In an interview from his home on the shore of Lake Peachtree, Cowan told The Citizen Friday that the meeting went extremely well.
We're rapidly getting to know each other, Cowan said of the board's 15 members.
The first item on the authority's agenda will be reviewing the Atlanta Regional Commission's far-reaching transportation plans and evaluating how well ARC's plans fit into the regional scheme.
The Atlanta region has been cut off from federal highway funds until a plan is implemented to reduce automobile emissions and clean up the region's dirty air.
Cowan said the authority will try to focus on making sure all future transportation plans fit into an overall plan, instead of doing piecemeal solutions, which is the characterization he gave many of the efforts in the past few years.
As for what Fayette and Coweta commuters can expect to see in the next few years, Cowan said the authority's first task may be increased high occupancy vehicle lanes in Cobb and Gwinnett counties. Eventually, those lanes could spread to Interstate 85 south to Coweta County.
Eventually, Cowan sees bus lanes being added to Atlanta's freeways and said he hopes the person riding by himself to work may decide to leave his car at home.
If you're looking at cars in the HOV lanes and buses in the bus lane passing you by, you might decide it's better to do something than sitting in traffic all day, he said.
Solving Atlanta's transportation woes is an educational process, Cowan said, adding that he believes future entrepreneurs will want to create bus routes to alleviate many of the traffic problems.
The future for Fayette County commuters lies in protecting the county's main arterial roads, such as Ga. Highway 85, Ga. Highway 74 and Ga. Highway 314, he added.
Tyrone should be complimented for protecting Hwy. 74, but they've got to stick it out, Cowan said.
If a person has had a bad day at work and then has to drive down Hwy. 85 in Riverdale, the stress level is going to increase and Fayette's leaders should work to stop that from happening in the county, he advised.
For many years, transportation planners have pointed to commuter rail as an option for getting people off the roads. Cowan agrees with the concept, but said the density in population has to be there for it to be successful.
A proposed Atlanta to Senoia line was dubbed one of the most feasible lines, but Cowan said the Senoia rail line will probably come as a result of lines being built to either Macon or Columbus, with Senoia tying into one of those lines.
While leaders around the country are looking to see if GRTA can be successful in such a car-happy state, Cowan said the agency actually should have been started eight or nine years ago to prevent the problems the region is now facing because of its dirty air.
If the agency had been formed earlier, Cowan doubted the huge sprawling Mall of Georgia in Gwinnett County would have been built, because of the traffic and environmental problems the mall is going to spawn.
Other transportation issues the authority will discuss in its upcoming meetings include the building of the northern arc of the proposed outer perimeter highway.
I really think the question that's going to have to be answered is: Are you better or worse off by building the road, he said.
In addition to concerns expressed by local governments that GRTA has too much power and will interfere with local transportation plans, another early criticism of the authority is the composition of its 15-member board, which Cowan dismisses.
It's a cheap shot to say that we're not environmental friendly. Many on the authority are well-versed in environmental issues, he said.
The first priority for the agency is now hiring an executive director. Cowan is conducting a national search and is waiting to let the new executive director staff the agency.
GRTA will meet monthly and is currently ironing out the details of the meeting spot. The authority is currently housed in the Equitable Building in downtown Atlanta.
Looking out on Lake Peachtree, Cowan said he realizes the agency has a gargantuan task ahead of it. But, he doesn't think it's impossible to achieve.
We've got to create a vision and we also have to restore trust in the process, he said.