Georgia’s transportation game clock was ticking its final minutes when a 2012 “Hail Mary” pass fell with a thud far from the intended receiver. Uncomfortable with the game on the line, leaders in the General Assembly and the Governor’s Mansion pitched a panicked audible to voters and local governments with the T-SPLOST referendum. Its rejection left leaderless chaos for two-a-half years, during which we’ve seen little reason for hope and backsliding across metropolitan Atlanta.
At least until this month, that is. With cautious support from House Speaker David Ralston and Governor Nathan Deal, we’re seeing the glimmer of an actual 21st Century vision for transportation in Georgia. Some leaders now grasp the stakes are higher than gridlock. They’re beginning to understand the pulse of the future economy will travel not via the car-centric system they grew up with last century, but increasingly in the world of their children’s generation: walkable cities, easy to bicycle, connected to transit.
So far, we hear more about transit than people-powered travel. But, if lawmakers like Ralston keep listening to their kids and meeting with high-tech executives, they’ll realize it’s the package.
You see it in revitalized downtowns like Columbus, Decatur, Roswell, and Woodstock. More important, it’s cropping up in new cities built to Millennial generation specs in Brookhaven, Dunwoody, and Sandy Springs. The Atlanta BeltLine is the embodiment of this. Venture beyond our borders to find this economy thriving today in Greenville, SC.
We’re gathering our wits after the debacle of 2012, but we’re far from a game plan. And, time is shorter still. The first transportation play of this legislative session, House Bill 170, acknowledges the sizable $1B/year funding gap. But, versions floated so far won’t survive opposition from cities and counties who dislike taking gasoline tax proceeds from local governments to fund state investments. Passing the buck didn’t work in 2012, and it’s not a good call now. But, it’s a start.
This is the conundrum of watershed moments. Leaders must paint a future vision that is clear, compelling, and complete in answering problems and opportunities. But, they must also confront complexities and obstructing forces in place. To marry lofty vision for where we must go with sober acknowledgement of weighty obstacles – this is the art of leadership.
MIT lecturer and author Peter M. Senge called it “creative tension” in his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Describing the mastery of great leadership, Senge used the image of two hands stretching a thick rubber band. The hand pulling down is the current state, in our case: mind-numbing traffic, endless sprawl, broken funding models, and political distrust. The hand pulling upward is the vision: for Georgia, walkable cities with bicycle-friendly streets, maintained roads, and convenient transit – supported by a fair and equitable funding model people understand and accept.
In Senge’s model this tension between current and future states creates energy to fuel the journey. Lofty visions disconnected from current reality are meaningless. Obsessive focus on flaws of today with no vision for something better is pointless.
Georgia needs engaged leaders unafraid to harness creative tension to propel us forward. Stung by the failed Hail Mary, our leaders are dinking it down the field, treading carefully with comments. At least we’re back on offense. But for now – at least out loud – no one is confidently calling plays to get us to the end zone.
In ordinary times, ordinary leaders can pick winnable moments to step forward. But, these are extraordinary times demanding something more. The clock is ticking. Who wants the ball? There’s a legacy to be made.
Countdown to the Estimated End
of the 2015 Georgia Legislative Session