Could north Fulton MARTA tax concerns scuttle November transit vote?

As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Tuesday, a House bill could pave the way for transit expansions across the 13-county metro Atlanta region.

It’s unclear what effect House Bill 930 would have on the ability of Fulton and Gwinnett counties to ask voters to approve transit sales taxes this year. But other considerations may hobble Fulton County’s efforts to take a transit referendum to the polls in November.

Lawmakers from north Fulton County are asking why voters should approve an additional transit tax when their constituents have been paying a 1 percent MARTA tax for decades and – they say – have little to show for it.

“Citizens are smart and understand the reality of the situation. They have paid the MARTA tax for over 45 years and received little-to-no benefit,” state Sen. John Albers, a Roswell Republican, said in a recent opinion column. “Now is the time and opportunity for MARTA to provide solutions with their existing budget and tax base.”

On Tuesday Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann took that concern a step further. Hausmann, a key transit advocate, told the AJC she thinks scheduling a vote for November might be a bad idea, given questions about the value north Fulton residents get for their MARTA tax dollars.

Hausmann and other north Fulton elected officials want MARTA to help pay for a new bus rapid transit line up Ga. 400 out of the existing tax. Until the agency coughs up some money, Hausmann said there’s no sense asking for more.

“I hope MARTA sees this as an opportunity,” Hausmann told the AJC.

MARTA officials say the existing tax pays for the operation and upkeep of the existing transit system. That system includes rail service to the North Springs station in Sandy Springs and bus service to north Fulton communities like Sandy Springs, Roswell and Alpharetta.

MARTA officials fear upkeep of the existing system could suffer if they dedicate existing tax money to transit expansion. They also fear other jurisdictions – like DeKalb County – might make similar demands for more construction out of the existing tax dollars. The result, they say, could be the degradation of a rail and bus service MARTA has fought for years to improve.

On Wednesday, MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe told the Senate Transportation Committee the agency spends 60 percent of its budget on maintaining the 40-year-old system and 40 percent on operations.

“To be blunt, that’s how other transit systems around the county have gotten themselves into trouble, by prioritizing expansion over maintenance,” Ashe told the committee.

Ashe cited well-publicized problems with transit systems in New York and Washington, D.C., which have not kept up with needed maintenance. That’s a model Ashe said MARTA has avoided.

“I do not believe we have room in our capital budget to pay for state of good repair and do something new,” he told the committee. But with the cost of maintenance covered, “new money means new service for us.”

Additional state funding for transit expansion could help paper over differences over the use of the existing MARTA tax. HB 930 includes about $40 million annually in new taxes and fees. But a state bond dedicated to transit construction is under negotiation, and could yield substantially more revenue.

You can learn more about transit legislation under consideration by the General Assembly here.

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