Why the bill to expand MARTA rail may be only ‘mostly dead’

The mayor of Atlanta now has a young daughter just old enough to enjoy a good bedtime story. As one dad to another, there’s no better book to read aloud than “The Princess Bride.”

Especially the part where the alchemist diagnoses our fallen hero as only “mostly dead.” Which, he adds, means “slightly alive.”

In fact, Kasim Reed may already be working on his Miracle Max impression. “Slightly alive” is very close to the mayor’s description of a bill that would allow MARTA to mount an $8 billion expansion of its rail system.

Senate Bill 330 was declared dead last week, deep-sixed by Senate Republicans representing the north metro arc who a) don’t think the grinding congestion on Ga. 400 is a lifestyle problem; b) don’t think rail is the solution; or c) agree that it’s the solution, yet would rather someone else pay for it.

But in an interview, Reed warned against shoveling any dirt on the corpse. He feels a pulse.

“What I think is going to happen is, hopefully, the rhetoric on both sides, the Democrat side and the Republican side, will start scaling back a bit, because we’re in a jobs war,” Reed said. “And it’s not just Democrats and Republicans in Atlanta. Or Atlanta versus the suburbs. It’s about whether Georgia is going to continue to attract jobs that pay well.”

Over the last seven years, you have seen many iterations of Kasim Reed, a fellow who by turns can be forceful, impatient and even gosh-darn angry. But the mayor who sat down in front of the recorder on Thursday predated all of those versions.

This was the cool, quiet and confident Reed whom I first met when he was in the state Senate. The lawyer who could climb inside the head of any Republican, find the common ground and strike the deal.

The MARTA bill is still alive, Reed insisted. “While a lot of folks have been taking traditional political stances, underneath all of that, there’s real work being done on trying to find a compromise that addresses folks’ needs,” the mayor said. “Money for road improvements, and bus rapid transit – maybe an approach that some folks feel more comfortable with – versus rail.

“But by the same token, there is a strong feeling that MARTA can’t wait anymore,” he said. The competition for millennials, the next generation of workers, is simply too fierce.

Since the collapse of S.B. 330, the transit agency has sketched out a fallback position: A local bill that would call for a referendum to levy a half-penny sales tax in the city of Atlanta alone, which could be used to fund $2 billion or so in new transit projects.

But the mayor of Atlanta isn’t ready to give up on the larger regional push that MARTA has been advocating since last summer. The formal rules of the Legislature state that no bill that failed to pass the Senate by last Monday – the 30th day of the session – can be considered by the House. But as a veteran of the Capitol, Reed knows which rules can be bent.

It’s within the realm of possibility that House Speaker David Ralston and Gov. Nathan Deal might lend him a hand.

“I think the most mature approach is to wait until sine die,” the mayor said. “Everybody should take a deep breath, because anyone who is sophisticated knows that the Legislature can do what it wants to.

“Everyone recognizes that there is a great need for road and infrastructure improvements all throughout Fulton, certainly in north Fulton,” Reed said. “If we don’t address this in ’16, the next opportunity for a referendum is ’18. Which means you’ve effectively moved the process back five years.”

Perhaps you didn’t recognize what just happened. That was the mayor of Atlanta revealing his hole card. Not as a threat. Just a cold, hard non-negotiable fact.

On Tuesday, while most of the nation obsessed over Donald Trump, the voters of Atlanta approved the renewal of a Municipal Option Sales Tax, which could raise as much as $750 million over four years for water-related improvements. Atlanta will be no Flint, Mich.

But Tuesday’s vote was also a display of ballot strength that can be applied to other infrastructure issues. Or withheld.

At the root of the fight over MARTA’s expansion is a one percent, five-year local option sales tax granted last year by House Bill 170, the transportation funding bill, to counties. MARTA wants half that penny in Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties, but the transit agency wants the duration of the tax extended for several decades, to allow for the $8 billion in bonding.

In Fulton County, non-believers in transit want the cash from that penny to go solely to roads and bridges. But when it comes to transportation, the climate is changing.

“Folks can’t be politically naïve enough to believe that they can just put a countywide referendum up that does roads only. You might as well not even go through the exercise,” Reed said. Again, his tone was important. He wasn’t loud. There was no threat, no boasting. Just cold, hard fact.

On Monday, a five-day qualifying period begins, in which candidates for office – including the Capitol’s 236 legislative seats – declare themselves. By noon Friday, the current crop of House members and senators will know whether they will have to concern themselves with primary challengers. And so whether they have to worry about the votes they cast in the next few weeks.

The mayor of Atlanta is prepared to climb into some heads to address those worries.

“The biggest deterrent to primary opposition is a roaring economy,” Reed said. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is closing in on a 20-year leasing deal with its largest tenant, Delta Air Lines. With that deal comes $6 billion in renovations and a sixth runway.

“The gumbo of the region’s economy is coming along nicely,” Reed said.

Take a $6 billion capital program at the Atlanta airport, add an $8 billion MARTA program that extends more than a decade, stir in $1.3 billion in road improvements over five years – that would be what’s left over should MARTA take the half-penny – and suddenly you have a construction industry on fire and unemployment taking a nose dive, the mayor said.

If Republicans want to avoid a primary challenge, let them take credit for that. “That’s more in their interest than an economy that’s contracting,” said Miracle Max. I mean, the mayor.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.