Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul pitched transportation improvements as one of his political legacies during a Jan. 12 trip across the city line to speak to the Buckhead Fifty Club.

Paul peppered his speech to the historic social and civic club, gathered at American Legion Post 140 in Chastain Park, with jokes about border crossings and annexations. But in a serious regional theme, he praised former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, who attended the club meeting, as providing a transportation-planning model, “which is, think beyond yourself. Think beyond your time in history.”

“This is about trying to do something meaningful for my hometown,” Paul said.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul speaks to the Buckhead Fifty Club Jan. 12 at the American Legion post in Chastain Park. (Photo John Ruch)

Paul was big on enthusiasm but low on details. However, in informal conversation, he repeated his backing for MARTA’s planned Red Line extension at least to Northridge Road, and praised Gov. Nathan Deal’s transportation plan announced the same day. That includes toll express lanes on Ga. 400 and I-285 that, Paul said, he and other mayors would have teamed to request, but “the governor just took care of it for us today.”

In previous meetings and interviews, Paul has described meeting regularly with some other area mayors in an attempt to develop a regional transportation program, including both MARTA and road expansions, that could be presented to voters for a special local option sales tax. He alluded to that in his speech, saying transportation infrastructure improvements are “going to cost some money. Things aren’t free.”

Forty-five years ago, Massell shepherded the campaign that got MARTA off the ground in DeKalb and Fulton counties, but with suburban leaders and voters opting out. Speaking in nostalgic terms about his own political legacy, Paul contrasted the fates of metro Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., the area where he grew up.

“Part of it is political leadership…the difference between George Wallace and Bull Connor, and Ivan Allen and Sam Massell,” Paul said, comparing Alabama’s infamous segregationists with Atlanta’s MARTA-boosting, progressive mayors.

Atlanta’s leaders once were ahead the curve, creating inner-city highways along with trains, Paul said. “Then something tragic happened. We quit. We quit. We didn’t do any more planning…Now we’ve lost 30 years or more.”

North Fulton has few new roads and suffers from lack of walkability, Paul said. The economic growth and redevelopment is a success, but there isn’t transportation capacity to handle its new congestion, he said.

One reason for the lack of specific proposals in Paul’s transportation boosting talk is that he and other mayors are still working out ideas. He has previously said that their goal is a list of practical, needed projects that can gain political and public support. That also means that the monorail idea recently floated in Sandy Springs is not out of the question.

“I got monorails and overhead trains up the wazoo,” Paul said. “Truth is, we’re looking at everything…We don’t have any plans for a monorail, but we don’t want to [shut] ourselves out of it either.”

But whatever the improvements are, “This is going to be painful,” Paul said. “We’re going to end up retrofitting all that infrastructure into mature communities because we didn’t plan ahead.”

One example is a controversial dual roundabout proposed at the intersection of Johnson Ferry Road and Mount Vernon Highway in Sandy Springs. The city shifted the site plan for mysterious reasons to eat into the front yard of the Mount Vernon Towers senior condos, sparking safety concerns and legal threats. “It’s driving [Mount Vernon Towers residents] nuts, and justifiably so. It’s driving me nuts,” Paul said.

Paul revealed that a problem was the original plan’s design to take right-of-way from a 1950s-era subdivision and a longtime auto repair shop. The project uses federal funding, which can’t be used to negatively affect “historic” properties—meaning 50 years of age or older, Paul said. That includes the subdivision and the repair shop.

“Eddie’s Automotive was declared by the federal government as a building of historic significance,” Paul said to laughter. “We have checked and we have not been able to find any evidence George Washington had his horse fixed at Eddie’s Automotive.”

Paul said that the city responded by shifting the design to affect Mount Vernon Towers instead. He also got backing from the local Congressional delegation to alter a federal transportation funding bill to remove the historic-status issue, but even if that worked, the city would have to resubmit its new plan for federal funding, he said.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.