Originally created 06/04/99

Transportation chief named



ATLANTA -- Gov. Roy Barnes on Thursday named a developer to head the new mega-transportation agency charged with finding ways to reduce the air pollution and traffic congestion brought about by aggressive development.

But environmental activists say Joel Cowan, the founder of Peachtree City, is a good match for the problems faced by the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

"Joel Cowan has been the leading light in trying to have growth in Georgia grounded in improving the quality of life," said John Sibley III, president of The Georgia Conservancy and another appointee to the 15-member GRTA board. "I don't think anybody has thought longer or harder on that than Joel."

The General Assembly created GRTA in March, approving the major initiative of Mr. Barnes' first legislative session as governor.

The authority will direct road and rail projects and help oversee development in areas that fail to meet federal clean-air standards, using $2 billion in bonding authority.

For now, its sway will extend only to the 13-county Atlanta region. Its jurisdiction had been expected to expand into Augusta, Macon and Columbus by next summer, but a recent federal court decision rejected stricter clean-air standards that would have put those cities out of compliance.

While 11 of its 15 members are business leaders or lawyers, the new authority board also includes a professor of city planning at Georgia Institute of Technology, a transportation engineer, former Fulton County Commissioner Martin Luther King III, and Mr. Sibley.

"I do believe that this group of people will be able to come up with a workable plan that will lead us in the right direction," Mr. Barnes said in a statement issued by his office Thursday while he was away on vacation.

Environmentalists have been lobbying the governor for weeks to name pro-environment people to the board.

While the board's roster of environmental activists is limited to Mr. Sibley, environmental groups still hope to place representatives among the three advisory boards that will assist GRTA, said Mark Woodall, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club.

Mr. Woodall applauded the inclusion of Mr. Cowan and developer John Williams of Atlanta on the authority. Mr. Williams has backed redevelopment of blighted urban areas as an alternative to promoting sprawl brought on by building in outlying suburbs.

"The developers on there are into the new urbanism," Mr. Woodall said.

Mr. Cowan served as chairman of the Governor's Growth Strategies Commission during the late 1980s. But unlike that board, or the Atlanta Regional Commission, GRTA will have the power to force counties to plan healthy growth.

"If GRTA turns a project down, it requires a three-fourths (local) vote to overturn it, plus there are penalties," Mr. Cowan said. "It's not something to be taken lightly."

Mr. Cowan said the authority hopes to have an executive director on board by August, following a nationwide search.

On Thursday, GRTA announced the hiring of longtime Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Charles Walston as its communications director, at a salary that will range from $65,000 to $75,000 a year.

Dave Williams is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.