Leithead, 54, has served on the ARC for nine years. The former Cousins Properties executive chairs the Cumberland Community Improvement District, of which he has been a member for 19 years. He also is a member of two other CIDs: Perimeter Center and North Fulton.
He and his wife, Sue, live in east Cobb near the Chattahoochee and have two sons.
On Transportation: “We’re literally at a fork in the road right now. If we assume that we can identify funding for transportation projects in the region, then 10 years from now, I think we’ll see an HOV system that starts from Akers Mill and continues all the way out from, probably Sixes Road on I-75 and to Chastain Road on I-75.
“It’s two HOV lanes in either direction permanently south of Akers Mill. But north of Akers Mill, it will be two lanes south in the morning, reversible, two lanes north in the afternoon.
“So you will actually have HOV lanes that are convertible based on the direction traffic is flowing. … The roads that are currently available for drivers, free of charge, would remain. Two HOV lanes reversible in either direction would be added, and that would allow us to preserve right-of-way for a light-rail system. Sam has advocated for years as Cobb Commission chair and ARC chair that there needs to be light rail in that corridor, and he’s turned the tide.”
Leithead said the HOV lanes would require three people in a vehicle.
“All the studies we’ve done show that two passengers per car doesn’t mitigate the traffic congestion. At three passengers per car, it does. Again, if funding is available I would say in 10 years there will be a light rail system in that corridor with strategic stops probably at Akers Mill, possibly at either the north or south loop, and then at town center and one at the north terminus at 575.”
“If we’re not able to identify transportation tax in the state of Georgia, which we failed to get in 2008 and 2009, then I think we’ll probably scale the project back and execute the HOV lanes but not add the light rail. With a funding mechanism yet to be identified, we will have that plus a light-rail system.”
The “funding mechanism” ARC would like to see is a one-cent sales tax collected and spent in the Atlanta metro region, he said.
“The ARC is going to be supporting legislation this year that creates a regional tax that would be collected in the region (if it’s passed in legislature then voted on by the public), if it’s passed — twice — then it would be with the provision that 100 percent of the money that’s collected in the region stays in the region.”
“We don’t think it’s politically-savvy to put it on the ballot in November 2010. Probably a special election will be in March 2011. The legislature will have to pass it in 2010, then we’ll take it to the voters in March 2011. By that time, the counties would have agreed on everything. Say Cobb County votes it down — if the regional majority wins it, Cobb agrees to be bound by it to pay the penny and collect the penny. The majority would come from the votes, not the number of counties.”
ARC estimates a 10-year tax would bring in $7.9 billion, and with matching federal funds, could translate into $13 billion, he said. Still, the ARC’s estimate is that the total need for that period is $106 billion.
“So you don’t solve the problem; you take a step towards solving the problem,” he said.
“We’re going to have to be very careful about prioritizing how we invest that money. Some of it has to go to transit, some of it has to go to roads, some of it has to go to pedestrian facility, some of it has to go to bicycles. There’s a cornicopia of transportation solutions, all of which are part of transportation solution. But $13 billion ain’t $106 billion.”
Leithead acknowledge that there are many agencies involved, with ARC, GDOT, MARTA, GRTA, and SRTA (the State Road and Tollway Authority), but pointed out that most will have new leadership in the new year. The heads of all of those agencies meet quarterly, where they “sit down in a group and talk to each other about our mutual interest in solving the congestion problems in the state and region. Just sitting down and talking to each other instead of talking about each other, that makes a huge difference.”
Another thing that would make a big difference is turning the dirt, he said.
“(The ARC has) not only the right, but the obligation, to do regional planning and enforce regional planning. … We’ve been studying and planning for ten years. It’s time for us to do something. As Sam Olens says, it’s time for us to move dirt.”
“Between 2000 and 2006, the ARC had $2.6 billion worth of funded and approved projects. Of that $2.6 billion, we actually built $600 million. $2 billion were put on the back-burner. Those $2 billion in projects are still in the transportation improvement program, but now, because of cost increases, they cost $6 billion. So, we’ve been letting inflation and delay and planning sneak up on us and it’s gotten in the way of building stuff that actually fixes traffic.”
“Sam (Olens) has been adamant during his five years as chair of ARC that it’s time to stop talking and start moving dirt and start building. Let’s identify projects we can build and, by God, build them. We’re going to start building projects because we need them in this region. They’re affecting our economic development.”
On water: “Transportation is front and center as far as people’s perspective,” he said, although “water is probably the bigger of the two challenges. … Even though traffic is an issue to us every day, the real challenge to our vitality in the next 10, 20 years is water.”
“One, we need to maintain and capture more of the water that falls out of the sky. I’ve heard a statistic that 50 trillion gallons of water falls on Georgia a year. Of that, we only retain one. But it’s very difficult in this environment to get a permit to build a reservoir. You see that in Cobb County and when we do try to build a reservoir, Alabama tries to sue us, right? So one is to capture that water and hold it for our use.
“Two is conserve. You can’t conserve your way out of a drought, but we need to have conservation of our precious resource front and center in the minds of people that live in this region.”
“Three, coming up with a water-management plan through the Corps (of Engineers), through the federal government, that allows us to protect the resource when the water does go into Lake Lanier and the other resources, that allows us to maintain that and protect at a reasonable level for our use. All three of those have to be in our strategy for water.”
“The first order of business is to resolve the judge’s ruling. We’ve got to get out of this lawsuit. … Do I think it’s going to be a walk in the park? No. I can tell you that it’s a necessity for the ongoing growth and quality of life for the people of Atlanta, and we’re going to get it done. …
Despite such looming challenges, Leithead looks to the future with optimism.
“I’ve lived in Cobb since 1983, and I believe Cobb is one of the best-run counties in our region and in our state. I think Cobb and Atlanta’s best days are in front of us. If I believed that our best days were behind us, I wouldn’t be stepping up to chair the ARC,” he said. After all, “there’s no reason to be captain of a sinking ship.”