Atlanta's New Transit Chief

African-American woman from the projects takes job in stride

The new leader of Atlanta's mass transit board will never need to interview riders to find out how well the subway and bus system serves them. She is one of them, depending daily on rail and wheel to take her to her job, church, and children's schools.

It's a first for Atlanta - having a transit chief who doesn't even own a car - and unusual even in cities where public transportation is more a part of life than it is here.

But while the move makes sense, the promotion of Laura Lawson from Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority board member to MARTA board chairwoman has stirred quite a storm.

At its eye are questions of whether common man or powerbroker should lead this organization, and where the organization should be led: to serve affluent suburban commuters or the car-less?

They're issues that cities as different as San Francisco, St. Louis, and Washington have all struggled with. With Ms. Lawson at the helm, though, Atlanta's solutions could merit close attention, for Lawson straddles the two worlds of policymaker and everyday resident better than almost anyone could. In addition to owning no car, she has lived in public housing for the past 14 years; she works as community organizer for her public-housing complex.

Yet she is comfortable in the halls of power as well. She is past president of the Atlanta Housing Administration board, has served on the advisory committee to the city's Empowerment Zone board, and has sat on the board of Centennial Olympic Park Area Inc. She's hobnobbed with Jack Kemp when he was secretary of Housing and Urban Development and also has a close working relationship with Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell.

"Whatever group she affiliates herself with, she gravitates to the top," says Joe Beasley, a high-ranking member of the influential Antioch Baptist Church North, where Lawson attends and has served on its board. "She's a very strong and committed leader, a proven leader both inside and outside her community."

Being judged

Critics have focused on her years in public housing and wondered if she will be beholden to players such as Mr. Beasley and Mayor Campbell who have helped her achieve what she has.

"We know that she describes herself as a paid community organizer of Herndon Homes," writes Atlanta commentator Dick Williams. "Paid by whom? Is she a political operative? A conduit for street money?"

As MARTA chairwoman, she'll be paid $75 per meeting, the same rate as other board members. The board meets once a month.

Lawson stresses that her role as chairwoman of the MARTA board is to solicit input from the 16 other members and work with them to reach a decision agreeable to all - not to push her own agenda. She talks often of teamwork. "First and foremost I want each and every board member to know that I respect their opinion on every issue," she says. "I wouldn't want any member to feel like their input is not important."

Except for the fact that she lives in public housing, Lawson's path to public service mirrors that of many women leaders today. She first became active in her four children's parent-teacher associations and went on to lead the equivalent of a neighborhood association. She parlayed that into her multiple roles on appointed city boards and now says a run for city council may be in her future.

Her term as chairwoman of MARTA lasts one year; usually MARTA leaders serve two one-year terms, voted in by fellow board members.

No limits

"Whenever somebody tells me we can't do something, I'm the first to want to know why, why can't we do it," Lawson says, explaining how she first became a leader in her community.

Lawson has her work cut out for her in her new role, however. This year, for the first time in more than a decade, MARTA's board will be voting on where to expand the rail's service - a fight that could fell even the most politically savvy.

Four expansion plans are on the table, but two have stirred deep sentiment for two very different segments of the city. One popular plan would parallel a massive highway system that shuttles thousands of commuters to work each day from Atlanta's affluent northwestern suburbs. The other would bring rail service into a more impoverished community that has no access to MARTA at the moment. This line could help transport car-less residents to jobs that are currently out of their reach.

But as Lawson took up MARTA's reins this week (she led her first board meeting Monday), outgoing MARTA chairman Joseph Lowery says he is confident that Lawson is ready for the challenges that lie ahead.

"She's a solid citizen who believes in fairness and equity," Dr. Lowery says. "As the year progresses, I believe her critics will fade into the woodwork and Laura will rise to the occasion."

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