As a board member for the new metro Atlanta mass transit authority, Steve Dickerson is successfully swaying some peers, elected officials and neighborhood groups with his public and private advocacy of a universal cellphone app tying together various transportation modes and payment systems. At the same time, Dickerson runs a private company to build such an app and is suing Uber and Lyft for allegedly infringing a patent it holds, a position that one watchdog groups says is a conflict of interest.

“It’s never in the public interest for an elected official to use their office for personal gain,” said Sara Henderson, executive director of the government ethics advocacy group Common Cause Georgia. “This is clearly an example of that practice and it’s something that the Atlanta Transit Link Board should seriously investigate, as the public’s faith in boards such as these is imperative and should be protected.”

Steve Dickerson, a board member of The ATL. (Special)

Dickerson and the Atlanta-Regional Transit Link Authority or “The ATL,” where he serves as an elected board member, say there is no conflict, in part because the authority requires him to recuse himself from certain votes that might affect his business. Dickerson said that he wants the state to build and operate the universal app and related services he is promoting, but that he may do it himself with his private company if the state does not.

“I’ve tried over and over again to convince government officials – GDOT [the Georgia Department of Transportation], MARTA, ATL – to take some of these things and put them into practice,” Dickerson said in a phone interview. “Well, there can’t be a conflict [of interest] if they decide they can’t put them into practice. That’s the way I look at it. Now, there is a chance that I will start an activity that implements one or more of those concepts, but under the conclusion that the public authorities just won’t do it. That’s my point of view. I would much rather GDOT, MARTA and ATL do what I would call the right things.”

Deidre Johnson, a spokesperson for the ATL, noted that Dickerson declared his ownership of the Sandy Springs-based company RideApp in his financial disclosure filing with the Georgia Government Transparency and Finance Commission. She said ATL officials have “formally advised” Dickerson that he must recuse himself from votes relating to Uber, Lyft and his “business competitors,” and that the authority will not enter into any contractual agreement, “monetarily or gratuitous,” with his company.

“The ATL and its board of directors takes the public trust of its constituents very seriously and will continue to comply and adhere to all applicable laws, bylaws, policies and standards and be transparent in its operations to ensure that their trust is not compromised,” Johnson said in an email.

App momentum

Meanwhile, the ATL is seeking a federal grant of about $430,000 to create a limited version of Dickerson’s idea – an app that would unify ride-planning and fare payment across metro Atlanta’s transit agencies. And from Buckhead to Johns Creek, community leaders are receptive to Dickerson’s appeals for an app that could handle everything from new vanpooling systems to “congestion pricing” tolls on local streets.

On the ATL board, Dickerson represents District 3, which includes Dunwoody and large sections of Buckhead and Sandy Springs, as well as part of Cobb County. The Sandy Springs resident was elected to the board by a group of mayors and other officials last year over such candidates as Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts. A former Georgia Tech professor, Dickerson was a pioneer of vanpooling in the 1970s in Sandy Springs and Peachtree City.

At Georgia Tech, he developed software combining ride-hailing and automatic payment that he says is similar to that used by modern “ride-share” services. The school secured a patent in 2001 that is now held by his company RideApp. Last year, he sued Uber and Lyft for alleged patent infringement, and recently sued the service Juno as well.

Dickerson has said he hopes that a monetary award from a successful lawsuit would help to establish a statewide transit app, possibly through his own company. Dickerson promotes RideApp, which has no product yet, as a potential public utility with monopoly powers in the state.

However, it is far from certain that Dickerson will win the lawsuits – the main one is under appeal – and the patent in question will expire soon under a 20-year limit. While that makes potential funding sources for a statewide app unclear, Dickerson said, he believe it also clears up any potential conflict of interest.

“We absolutely don’t have a conflict and one of the reasons is, the patent is about to run out,” he said. And for now, he has pledged not to take any royalty for the use of that patent in Atlanta or Georgia. If there was such a royalty, he said, “that could cause a conflict of interest, but I would say there’s no conflict. You can quote me on that.”

ATL board member Steve Dickerson gestures with a cellphone while discussing his idea for a universal transportation app and other concepts at the Nov. 14 meeting of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods. (John Ruch)

The limited app that the ATL is considering creating, called “ATL RIDES,” would be based on open-source software and built by a Canada-based company called IBI Group, according to the federal grant application.

In his role as an ATL board member, Dickerson has participated in public and private meetings where he has advocated the app concept, along with expanded vanpools and high-occupancy toll lanes.

One such presentation, to the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods on Nov. 14, was well-received. BCN chair Mary Norwood praised Dickerson, saying, “We have the right guy at the right level.”

In Johns Creek, which recently partnered with the company Waze on a carpooling experiment, City Councilmember Chris Coughlin has spoken privately with Dickerson for brainstorming about a possible app-based vanpool pilot program. Linking the vanpool and possibly other ride-sharing services is another possible advantage, Coughlin said. “I’m a big believer in his universal app for doing that,” he said.

“The goal is to partner with Dr. Dickerson while he’s still got that ATL board membership,” said Coughlin. “I would like a private vendor to build it,” but have the state operate it, he said. “I think that’s what Steve is leaning toward.”

Dickerson said that even for a private business, creating a universal app is a “pretty rough road,” but one he continued to urge the ATL toward. “I might start another company to do some of the things that are in that write-up that you have [from the November BCN meeting],” he said. “But it could be RideApp. We’ll see.”