By Sam Burnham
(Note: It has come to my attention that Mr. Kilgore considers Georgia to be his home state and he worked for former Sen. Sam Nunn and three governors of Georgia. I made an edit to reflect that fact. However, my overall feelings pertaining to this article remain unchanged.)
I know y'all will find this hard to believe but there is a guy writing in New York Magazine about how Georgia policies to help farmers are to blame for the crippling effect that a missing stretch of highway, less than a quarter of a mile total, is having on transportation in Atlanta. That's right folks, it's all because of archaic policies to make life easier on the people who work in our state's top industry. What policy could be fueling such a horrible impact on Atlanta?
We have too many counties.
Are you serious, Clark?
So let's talk about this. New York Magzine commentator Ed Kilgore, whose Twitter bio list his home as Monterey, California, is correct that Georgia has 159 counties and that that total is second only to Texas. Although it is unclear if Mr. Kilgore realizes that Georgia is the largest state east of the Mississippi River, he is correct that Metro Atlanta is also spread out over 29 of those counties. But then he goes on to suggest that because of some backwards and outdated mindset, there has been no attempt to consolidate any of those counties. He also rambles a little about how the number has remained that high because of our county unit system that was outlawed in the 1960s.
Oddly enough, the biggest reason that Metro Atlanta is spread out over 29 counties is because in 1931, after big time bankers and investors from New York City drug Georgia into The Great Depression, Campbell County went bankrupt and was consolidated into Fulton County. Later that same year, Milton County was facing bankruptcy and decided to dissolve and also become part of Fulton County. Otherwise Atlanta would have been spread out over 31 counties. Residents of The Land Formerly Known As Milton County have recently explored the option of reinstating their county to have more say in their own affairs rather than depending on Fulton County which may or may not be interested in that area except for on Tax Day. Feasibility studies have suggested that such a move would be a good one for Milton residents but Georgia's Constituion currently restricts the number of counties to the current 159. So barring an unlikely county consolidation or a constitutional amendment, Milton residents will continue to be less than willing participants in Fulton County government.
Mr. Kilgore likes to credit racism for everything he deems to be lacking in The South. He thinks the reason that MARTA has not expanded past the core of Metro Atlanta is because people in the suburbs are afraid that black people will get in MARTA trains and come out to the suburbs, which is odd considering black people live in Atlanta's suburbs. But, like everything in The South, this issue is not that simple. If it was, it could be solved much easier. As always, let's look at the history that brought us here so we can understand the whole story.
Let's start in the Big Apple. When the Dutch made New Amsterdam the capital of New Netherland in 1625, it was already destined to be a center of trade and commerce. It was the center of exports for the Dutch fur trade enterprises. The British took over and renamed the city New York and the city grew exponentially. Other cities and towns would grow around New York as it drove the regional economy. But there was never a time that New York was not the true identity of that region. New York was there before anything else (other than Native American settlements.)
The city that sprung up on Manhattan was over 200 years old before the railroad marked their zero milestone at a patch of clay covered granite that they called Terminus. A dozen years later the place had a half a dozen buildings and some 30 odd residents and went by the name of Marthasville. Georgia had never had the kinds of cities you found up north at that time but Marthasville was pretty insignificant, even by Georgian standards. Many of the present day suburbs were larger towns with more residents and more businesses. The railroad was really the only reason Marthasville existed. By the time the Free & Rowdy Party was the political power of a city named Atlanta (you can't make this stuff up) the future suburbs were self sustaining entities. Atlanta was just a rambunctious railroad hub with a roundhouse and some rapscallions. Were it not for the railroad, it is doubtful that Sherman would have even stopped there and even less likely the Confederates would have cared that he did.
The industrial push that followed the war was what turned Atlanta into a city. Atlanta became a center of transportation for people and goods.This transportation ability is what convinced the government to move the capital from the much better planned Mlledgeville to its current location.
And then came the sprawl. Development moved across North Georgia like The Blob. The suburbs didn't come to Atlanta. Atlanta came to the suburbs. And still, it was not until the announcement in 1990 that Atlanta would be hosting the Olympic Games that the city really took its place a a major American metropolis. Today a person can drive from Atlanta to Vinings to Smyrna, to Marietta, to Kennesaw to Acworth and never leave the environment of sprawl. You might want to set aside an hour or two to account for traffic along that route.
In the meantime, those cities are trying to be themselves. They want to benefit from the economic development that comes with the proximity to Atlanta (and the transportation ability now provided by the world's busiest airport) but they still want to be their own towns. Some of them have their own transit departments that serve their towns but that don't automatically mesh with MARTA.
Saying that these towns just reject the idea of rail expansion in their area is just half of the story. A proposal that would have added to our local sales taxes was proposed to expand transit into the suburbs and even outlying cities. We rejected the proposal because the cost of the expansion, coupled with the fact that we use our cars regularly in our towns where we live and appreciate the independence they offer us, made the proposal very lucrative for Atlanta while offering relatively little to the outlying areas. That is the current state of Georgia politics. Atlanta never wants a dime to land outside 285 if they can scoop it into Atlanta first.
We must also discuss the perception that MARTA is hardly a reputable organization. On the very day the spotlight was thrown on them, the morning after the I-85 collapse, Atlanta news agencies reported that a high ranking MARTA official was under investigation in a possible theft/embezzlement scandal. We could make a list of similar situations involving MARTA funding over the last few decades. People in the suburbs don't want to raise their own taxes only to see some executive sneaking out the side door with the money. We'd rather drive to Atlanta when we need to, park, do whatever called us there, get in our car, leave at our own leisure, and then laugh to ourselves while watching traffic reports on the Atlanta news.
So no, it isn't all about farmer friendly laws, it isn't all about a law that has been dead for five decades, and it isn't all about racism, no matter how much a California New Yorker wants it to be.
As always, I invite the villain of the day, this time Mr.Kilgore, to come down and see for himself some of the real Georgia and I'll gladly help him understand what is really going on.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire