News - Road rage

Concrete lobby gets slapped in spat with business leaders

There is a God after all. I realized this the other day when I learned that a mean-spirited gang just got its comeuppance.

For years, Georgians for Better Transportation represented the "concrete lobby." The euphemistic name didn't mask the good ol' boy roots of the group, which for a time was run by a waning politician named Bubba.

Most folks understood that the GBT represented road-builders, concrete companies and backhoe dealers. But the group also included bankers, developers and even some public agencies, like MARTA, that had more complex transportation worries than just roads.

As Atlanta's traffic and air pollution problems got more complicated, the organization offered grudging support for things like commuter rail and sidewalks. Georgians for Better Transportation's big cause was to increase transportation funding, even if Bubba and company had a bias for highway money.

In the last few months, however, a loud clique has set a new agenda for the GBT.

The clique's members are bent on helping the concrete lobby feed at the public trough. But their real love seems to be fierce political combat. To them, the arcane world of transportation policy is another front in the culture war that now dominates American politics.

The good news is that members of the clique got caught biting a few fingers on the hand that feeds them. And that hand is slapping back.

The clique is led by Mike Kenn, best known for abandoning his post as Fulton County Commission chairman last July (and for dumping more than $1 million in special election bills on taxpayers) to take a plum post as head of the GBT. In a political career marked by pouty partisanship, Kenn utterly failed to solved Fulton County's transportation woes.

Never you mind: He's a former all-pro lineman for the Falcons. He's good-looking and very, very large. And some folks figure he's still an up-and-comer in the up-and-coming Republican Party. So let's all just give ol' Mike a big push upward, 'cause he's our guy — right?

Kenn's post-football career has been that type of free ride. He was helped along by a fawning Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which apparently viewed him as their kind of conservative. Go figure. Despite his disinterest in governing, the paper endorsed Kenn for re-election in 2002. He barely won, and eight months later, he quit.

While still on the county payroll (but apparently being considered for the GBT position), Kenn wrote a column for the paper touting the concrete lobby's line that Atlanta should face less stringent air pollution laws.

"The air is not heavy with pollutants," the soon-to-be GBT president wrote. "It is safe for children to play outdoors in the summer."

Except for thousands of kids with asthma.

Kenn's top aide at the GBT has had her own bout with a conflict of interest. As an editorial writer for the conservative Atlanta Journal, Susan Laccetti Meyers was a fervent foe of commuter rail. In 2000, we reported that she failed to disclose to readers her self-interest in opposing a rail project through her neighborhood. She also lied to us to try to cover up the conflict. The ethical lapse earned Meyers a "dart" from the Columbia Journalism Review.

Soon after the Journal's editorial page merged with the more liberal Constitution, Meyers landed as Kenn's top aide. And when Kenn broke his promise to serve a full term, he pulled Meyers along with him. Boy, did she luck out!

Kenn and Meyers arrived at the GBT just as business leaders were arriving at a promising consensus on how to solve Atlanta's transportation problems.

The region is in a bind because it's so spread out that Atlantans drive more miles per person than just about anyone on Earth. That means we fill more road miles with traffic. It means those roads get more clogged. And it means our smog will be a persistent problem.

Business and political leaders have been studying the issue under the umbrella of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. They've arrived at basically the same common-sense solution environmentalists have trumpeted for years: Use mass transit and more flexible zoning to encourage growth in built-up areas, rather than stretching development deeper and deeper into the country. One study commissioned by the chamber's Quality Growth Task Force found that more compact development over the next 20 years would cut commuting times by about a third and save 110,000 acres of open space.

The solutions involve hemming in government policies that socially engineer sprawl, whether that's throwing transportation dollars exclusively at roads or zoning that requires only large lots. In other words, the true conservative's approach to transportation lies in conserving both taxpayer and natural resources by steering dollars toward tighter communities.

Are Kenn and Meyers true conservatives? Or just propagandists for the concrete lobby? They are hooked into a propaganda network that has been confusing the national transportation debate for years. Chief among those folks is a consultant named Wendell Cox, whose speeches in Georgia have been sponsored by the GBT and whose work has been financed by fellow travelers at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

In an AJC column Feb. 6, Kenn declared Cox an "acclaimed scholar." But Cox is no such thing. His graduate degree is in business administration, not transportation. His resume lists no articles published in peer-reviewed journals.

Cox isn't even a transportation consultant in the usual sense. He doesn't design roads or bridges. But he does sell his services to special interests — truckers, bus companies, the concrete lobby — to repeat his mantra: More and more roads will solve your transportation woes; trains, sidewalks and better planning will never work.

The clique found a platform for its message at the daily newspaper. Since last June, the AJC has published 11 columns on air and transportation by Cox, Kenn, Meyers and Benita Dodd of the Public Policy Foundation. Op-ed editor David Beasley notes that the paper has published many opposing views from environmentalists and business leaders — as well as its own editorials, which tend to favor smart growth.

But 11 columns seems a high number for such a tight-knit group, particularly when those columns beat home the same simplistic message: roads good; anything else bad. One of Meyers' columns unintentionally cleansed a bit of the bad karma that the GBT created.

"If metro Atlanta wants a prescription on how to make traffic worse, it need not look any further than a recent report sponsored by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce," she said. " ... Sad to say, but the downtown business community has embraced the concepts of new urbanism and 'smart growth,' which promote high-density development ... ."

This time, Meyers stepped on the wrong toes. The chamber's Quality Growth Task Force, which she was dissing, includes a bunch of heavyweights. Its chairman is Tom Bell, CEO of Cousins Properties; its vice chairman is Cobb Commission Chairman Sam Olens, a rising GOP star; and the 45-member panel includes officials high in the Perdue administration.

The result, according to sources familiar with the episode, was a strongly worded letter to Kenn from Bell and Olens, followed by contentious meetings between board members and the staff. Some board members threatened to pull their businesses out of the group, according to one well-placed source.

"The irony is that they've chosen to attack the whole leadership of the regional business community along with a lot of [top] Republicans," said a leading businessman.

Tad Leithead, a Cousins senior vice president who sits on the GBT board, diplomatically describes "frank" discussions in which "both sides" now "better understand each other." But he also confirms that business leaders were quite emphatic that the GBT needed to concentrate on broader interests than just roads.

"The board agreed to focus more sharply on [transportation] funding for now," he says, adding that the "GBT has reached the conclusion that a broader [concept of transportation] would be more beneficial for the organization."

"As a GBT board member, I don't think GBT can afford to be seen as the concrete lobby," Leithead says. "I think that will have the effect of pigeonholing the organization and limiting its effectiveness."

It's clear from Leithead's description and from those by others involved in the controversy that Kenn and Meyers' orgy of ideology did some damage to the GBT. The brash words they'd used against environmentalists didn't wash with the top dogs in the business community.

"They've discredited their own cause and undermined their own credibility," a business leader says. "They've really hurt themselves with the real estate community and with the ARC [Atlanta Regional Commission] board."

It remains to be seen whether metro business leaders have enough pull in the Perdue administration to steer reform while the concrete lobby draws on Kenn's insider influence to keep those reforms from coming.

But why should developers like Cousins, whose interests lie in keeping the region growing at a healthy clip, support a narrow group bent on paving the state at the expense of real transportation solutions?

And why in the world should a financially strapped agency like MARTA (see this week's cover story) support an organization bent on driving nails into MARTA'S coffin?

I couldn't get Kenn or Meyers to answer my questions. In a response to a message, Meyers offered to consider them but basically said she didn't trust me. I e-mailed the questions but didn't hear back by press time.

Kenn now appears to be towing the line — somewhat. He's slated to unveil a GBT plan this month to raise gas taxes. But some business leaders still are expressing irritation at Meyers for continuing to push ideological buttons.

Maybe the GBT members should consider their future at the organization. It would be difficult for developers like Cousins to back away from the group; among Atlanta's discrete business elite, such public rebukes only come after a lot of prodding.

But it is well past time for MARTA to disassociate itself with the concrete lobby. For a model, the transit agency should look to Sally Flocks, president and CEO of an influential activist group called PEDS (Pedestrians Educating Drivers about Safety). A GBT staffer recently approached her about joining.

"I told them, 'No'," Flocks says. "I didn't want to give them legitimacy. I didn't think they were for better transportation. I thought they were for a tax increase to build more roads."

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