Metro Atlanta's mega-agency eyes a makeover

Atlanta Regional Commission looks in the mirror - and discovers it has teeth

In its 63 years, the Atlanta Regional Commission has been many things: think tank, data hub, head counter, a repository for color-coded maps. The plans it developed for the metro area's future growth and transportation needs, ambitious though they were, too often were simply shelved or only partially realized.

But new leadership and a push from board members eager for a bolder metro Atlanta has kick-started an effort to transform a toothless planning agency into a muscular regional force — one that could help you ride home on new transit, live in more walkable communities and make sure water keeps flowing from your tap.

"We're going to be more aggressive," says Tad Leithead, who was elected last December as the agency's first chairman who wasn't a local elected official. "We're going to be more involved in implementation. We're going to plan — but we're also going to expect our plans to be executed. We're going to define roles and responsibilities and work with partners collaboratively to make those things happen."

The ARC's newfound self-confidence could be more easily dismissed if it weren't for the fact that the agency has long had powers — granted by state lawmakers four decades ago — that have never been fully exploited. Plus, a coalition of metro Atlanta mayors and county leaders have signaled to Leithead they want to see the organization flex its muscles.

The result could be a newly energized regional force pushing back against exurban sprawl and advocating for mass transit, ultimately preparing the metro area better for dealing with the 3 million additional residents expected to call the metro region home by 2040.

Created by the state in a rare moment of forward thinking during America's post-World War II boom, the ARC — the first publicly funded, multicounty planning agency in the country — was designed to help manage growth for Atlanta and Fulton and DeKalb counties. As the years passed and such issues as transportation, water supply and sprawl became too big for one local government to tackle piecemeal, the agency's footprint grew to include 10 counties and 68 cities.

From its downtown offices, the ARC fulfills a variety of duties, chief among them deciding which metro Atlanta transportation projects receive federal funding. In addition, it's launched numerous projects the state wouldn't dream of touching, such as the Livable Centers Initiative, a planning program that helps local governments reimagine aging strip malls and blighted dead zones as attractive, walkable communities. The planning for a proposed regional transit system linking the major metro counties began there. Also, the state authority that sets regional water policy is housed in the ARC's headquarters.

Leithead, a former top executive with Cousins and longtime civic leader who's on a first-name basis with metro Atlanta's movers and shakers, has crisscrossed the sprawling region to pitch the agency's common-sense, progressive agenda to local officials, business groups, hipster wonks — basically, anyone who'll listen. Among his key points: metro Atlanta must invest in a variety of transportation options other than roads; create more walkable, mixed-use communities; and find a solution for meeting future water needs.

The old days of each county being satisfied by simply getting its fair share of federal dollars are over, Leithead says — and elected officials, business bigwigs and civic leaders must tackle the region's challenges together or watch other Southern cities such as Charlotte, Dallas and even Orlando pass Atlanta by.

To accomplish these goals, ARC board members say, Leithead is continuing the proactive, aggressive stance on regional issues that began under former chairman and incoming attorney general Sam Olens. Under Olens' leadership, the agency's board in mid-2007 analyzed other planning organizations and conducted an internal review.

Members learned the commission had the authority not just to plan, but to implement projects — from transit lines to reservoirs — provided it contracted with local governments because it can't levy taxes or incur debt on its own. What's more, the agency's ability to decide which transportation projects get picked to receive federal funding could be both a carrot and a stick for member governments who didn't follow the ARC's recommendations for road and transit plans.

"We determined we had a lot more muscle than we were exercising," Leithead says.

Members also discovered that, when it comes to its plans being implemented, the ARC didn't have the best batting average. According to the review, of $2.6 billion in funded transportation projects between 2000 and 2006, only $600 million worth — roughly 23 percent — were built.

Leithead believes that percentage needs to be much higher: "If you look back at rhetoric and press clips over that time period, there was a lot of planning going on, but not so much execution of actual projects."

During a board retreat this summer, the ARC board — which includes metro county commissioners and mayors — decided to overhaul the agency's mission and structure for the first time in decades.

There have been shake-ups along the way. In mid-October, two key senior staffers unexpectedly handed in their resignations. One of them — Tom Weyandt, the longtime planning department head and wonk's wonk beloved by staffers — was considered a brutal loss to the agency. Every transit vision and land-use proposal from the past 20 years likely bears Weyandt's fingerprints.

Next year, the commission will revise its long-term transportation plan and wait for the newly elected governors of Alabama, Florida and Georgia to strike a deal for sharing water from Lake Lanier. That's in addition to helping convince skeptical voters to support a one-cent sales tax referendum in 2012 that would raise billions of dollars to fund more transportation projects.

No one's been more intimately involved with these issues than Weyandt, whose position will remain unfilled — in the interim, Leithead says "extremely talented senior" ARC staff will pick up the slack — until February or March, when the agency is expected to complete the months-long process of re-evaluating its mission.

With that makeover could come an expanded focus on areas that board members and the public say are pressing issues of a regional scope, including community health, an aging population, support for the arts and, for the first time in the agency's history, education.

"It turns out we do have teeth," the chairman told a recent gathering of North Fulton business executives and local officials. "We just haven't been biting."