We face a historic decision on transportation that people will talk about for decades to come. In many ways it will define our legacy.
History provides two examples of just such decisions and how those tasked with making them are remembered.
The first is the Atlanta Airport. Investment in an “air port” seems obvious today but in 1925, it was radical. Seven years after the WWI, there was no commercially viable use for the airplane.
With weight being the limiting factor, mail delivery was the obvious first step; yet, that had failed six years earlier despite the investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars (millions in today’s economy) and dozens of lives.
In fact, it would take another 17 months after Atlanta leased a defunct automobile race track located well outside the city as a municipal airport before another attempt at airmail would be made. It failed in just three months.
Undeterred, Atlanta invested even more money installing state-of-the-art electric lighting and the exotic new electrical infrastructure to power it, all to accommodate night operations when, and if, commercial aviation ever became feasible – something it had not done in daylight.
It took 18 months for a third attempt to be made. Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce led an all-out campaign to garner support from the city council and mayor to buy the land outright and build additional facilities to support the fledgling private endeavor that now stood teetering precariously at the edge of the nest.
With less than a year of air mail service under its belt, Atlanta invested the staggering sum of nearly a half-million additional dollars to buy and upgrade the port facilities that they hoped would one day support the futuristic dream of commercial transportation through the very air itself.
We’ve patted ourselves on the back – and rightly so - ever since for our vision, our faith in ourselves and in the future, and our shrewd investment in an economic engine for the entire region.
The second example comes from the Downtown Connector. By the 1920s, Atlanta’s traffic was a chronic and stifling drag on the city. In 1946, we finally adopted the Lochner Plan. Its centerpiece was a hub-and-spoke unit of four short, limited-access highways radiating just a couple of miles from the central business district to relieve traffic congestion on surface streets.
Ten years later, the federal government provided the funding mechanism for interstate highways. While the funding was new, the plans were almost a generation old, and they were going to be a boon to Atlanta.
The two main north-south Interstates east of the Mississippi, I-75 west of the Appalachians and I-85 to their east, would both come through Atlanta. Finally Atlanta wouldn’t have to fight for its claim to legitimacy as a first-rate center of commerce. Yet the city that had always managed to unite – especially where economic advancement was at stake – turned on itself.
As the years passed, not a single proposed route for these Interstates could gain approval. Finally, in desperation, the city was forced into a decision that was doomed to failure from the very start. The two main eastern Interstates would simply have to merge, supplanting the already outdated limited-access highways of the old Lochner Plan.
The downtown connector was born . . . and we’ve been kicking ourselves for the last 50 years.
Our choice on July 31 is whether future generations will look at us and say, “Thank goodness they had the vision and guts to seize these opportunities, overcome the obstacles and make the tough decisions for our future” just like we do with the airport.
Or will they look at us and ask, “Why didn’t they do something about this when they had the chance? Why did they leave it to us to solve when it’s so much harder now? What happened to their vision, their faith and their courage?”
It’s easy to point out flaws, to tear things down, but those reasons always fade quickly to insignificance and, if remembered at all, are written in history as mere excuses for possibilities lost. In the future, we will have to live with success or failure, and to do nothing is the worst kind of failure. Instead, I urge the people of this vast 10-county region to look to the past for the inspiration to meet the challenges of the future with courage, vision, and faith in ourselves, just as an earlier generation did with an idea as outlandish as commercial aviation.