MARTA may have a powerful new ally for its expansion push

Metro Atlanta's transit agency came surprisingly close to securing the right to ask voters for a half-penny sales tax at the last legislative session. And when MARTA renews its push next year, it might have a powerful ally at its side.

House Speaker David Ralston, speaking at a conference sponsored by PolicyBest, sounded receptive to MARTA's region-transforming plan to raise as much as $8 billion for a commuter rail expansion.

"I don't know if MARTA will expand and, if it does, I don't know what it might look like," he said. "But what I do know is that major companies who seek out our state want reliable transit options in metro Atlanta."

He's referring to a few of the big fish that Georgia economic development recruiters recently netted, including the

ExploreState Farm complex

being built atop the rail line in Dunwoody and the

ExploreMercedes Benz U.S. headquarters

taking shape a short hop from the Sandy Springs MARTA station.

"If we expect to continue to attract global firms such as Mercedes Benz, we have to be willing to leave the past in the past and think more about the future," he added.

The sweeping transportation bill passed by state lawmakers this year allows counties to collect up to a penny per dollar for transportation projects if voters OK it in a referendum. MARTA wants a tweak that allows the money to go to the transit agency.

Our AJC colleague Andria Simmons explains more of the details:

By issuing bonds, MARTA could use the estimated $200 million in new sales tax revenue to bankroll about $4 billion of construction, [MARTA chair Robbie] Ashe said. If MARTA obtained federal matching funds, it could be looking at an $8 billion windfall. Enough, MARTA officials think, to nearly double the existing size of the system and transform the region.

The money could pay for a heavy rail expansion along Ga. 400 to Alpharetta, a heavy rail expansion along I-20 East in South DeKalb and a light rail or trolley system to connect MARTA to the vastly underserved Emory/CDC corridor. It might even be enough to help the city of Atlanta realize its goal of expanding Streetcar service to the Beltline, Ashe has said.

Ralston said in his speech that he will rely on local delegations from MARTA counties - that's Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton - to guide the discussion.

State Rep. Terry England, who chairs the House's budget-writing committee, sounded like he, too, is willing to let metro Atlanta lawmakers drive the train on the debate.

"I'm going to look to the folks that live in the counties that want the service," said England, who represents a northeast Georgia district. "I'm going to defer to the folks that actually live in the area that is served by it, and we'll see where it goes."