Bill could pave the way for MARTA expansion into Atlanta suburbs

VIDEO: Learn more about mass transit expansion options in metro Atlanta with the AJC's "5 things to know" series.

For decades Atlanta’s suburbs have said “no” to MARTA.

But legislation that passed the General Assembly before the stroke of midnight Thursday would give voters in Cobb, Gwinnett and north Fulton counties another chance to say "yes" to an agency they have long resisted.

Gwinnett County would be able to hold a MARTA vote this year. Cobb County could create a special transit district and have a MARTA expansion referendum by next year. Fulton County outside Atlanta also could be headed for a vote by 2019.

Those are just some of the provisions of a sweeping transit bill that could pave the way for the most dramatic expansion of transit in metro Atlanta in a generation. In all, 13 metro counties would be able to impose sales taxes of up to 1 percent for mass transit.

Rep. Calvin Smyre (right), D - Columbus, congratulates Rep. Kevin Tanner, R - Dawsonville, after the passage of HB 930, the mass transportation bill. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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The counties include Cherokee, Clayton, Coweta, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, Paulding and Rockdale. Any transit expansion would be contingent on voter approval in each county.

If approved in even a few counties, the new sales taxes could generate hundreds of millions of dollars for transit expansion. A 2019 state budget also approved Thursday would add another $100 million in bonds for transit projects.

State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, who helped negotiate the final bill, compared it to the General Assembly's 2015 decision to raise nearly a billion dollars a year for road construction.

“I really believe this will be transformational,” Beach said.

"This is a major, major achievement," added Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, another negotiator.

Essential to development

Almost as dramatic as the potential money involved is the change in attitudes at the Capitol and in the suburbs that led to the bill.

For decades Atlanta’s suburbs have rejected MARTA – and those sentiments have been mirrored by their representatives in the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

But suburban communities have added hundreds of thousands of residents in recent decades – many of them amenable to public transportation. And with companies like State Farm, Mercedes-Benz and NCR opening new facilities along MARTA lines, many lawmakers have come to see transit as essential to economic development.

House Bill 930, which awaits Gov. Nathan Deal's signature, would create a new board to oversee transit funding and construction in the Atlanta region. The board would create a regional transit plan and would have final approval over the project lists that any county wanted to submit for voter approval.

The idea is to improve coordination of transit services across county lines.

HB 930 also includes provisions specific to Cobb, Gwinnett and Fulton counties.

Fulton County officials plan several bus rapid transit lines like this one in Los Angeles as part of a transit expansion plan. DAVID WICKERT/AJC

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The bill would authorize a special transit district in Cobb County that could ask voters who live there to approve a transit expansion.

The district’s boundaries would be drawn by a committee consisting of county commissioners and state lawmakers representing the county. The committee must finish its work in 2019 – under the law, it will be disbanded on Dec. 1 of that year.

Perhaps the most striking provision: The bill specifically authorizes the new transit district to contract with MARTA to provide transit services.

MARTA would not be Cobb’s only option for a transit expansion. Like the other metro counties, it could opt to hold a countywide vote on a transit sales tax. That would allow the county to expand transit independently of MARTA, if it chose.

But if it wants to create a special transit district, MARTA is its only option.

Historic moment of change

Cobb and Gwinnett counties have had chances to join MARTA in the past, but declined. Both counties have developed their own local and commuter bus services, and they have shown little inclination to join the regional transit system until recently.

Cobb County Commission Chairman Mike Boyce was noncommittal about whether the county should opt for MARTA. He said any transit expansion is "going to be just as big a work load as it was getting the bill passed."

Boyce said the county is fiscally conservative, and it would take a significant information campaign to convince voters to support a tax increase for transit. But he’s on board with some sort of transit expansion.

“I support it [the bill] because I don’t need a traffic study to tell me we have traffic problems in Cobb County,” he said.

HB 930 also would let Gwinnett County hold a referendum on joining MARTA vote in November. Gwinnett also could opt for a transit expansion that does not involve MARTA.

County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash shied away from saying what she thinks Gwinnett will or should do. She said the entire county commission “has got to make a decision about how we move forward.”

But she said this: “Whether it’s November or it’s six months after November, it’s within sight now, in terms of the ability to hold the referendum.”

MARTA is studying expanding rail service in Clayton County. (CASEY SYKES / CASEY.SYKES@AJC.COM)

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The bill also includes a provision that would allow Fulton County to impose a .2 percent sales tax for a transit expansion outside the city of Atlanta. The county already has a .75-percent tax for road and bridge construction, plus the existing 1 percent MARTA tax.

Fulton mayors have tentatively approved a transit expansion plan and are considering a transit vote, likely next year.

Passage of a truly regional transit system – one that connects more than just Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties – has been a decades-long and elusive dream. A national reputation for gridlock, and intractable political differences that stymied efforts to solve it, have been a millstone around the Atlanta area's neck in corporate recruiting.

“The passage of this regional transit bill will prove to be a historic moment of change for our region,” said Michael Paris, president and CEO of the Council for Quality Growth, a trade group for the development community.

“Not only will we connect our communities like never before, but we are saying to corporate America that we are steadfast in our commitment to be the top place to invest and bring new job,” Paris said.

“It’s a new day,” said Mark Toro, managing partner for North American Properties, the developer behind Avalon in Alpharetta, Revel in Gwinnett County and the redevelopment of Colony Square in Midtown.

“This was a mission critical vote for the region,” Toro said. “Those in suburban communities who had previously been averse to transit are now in the minority.”

“Passage of HB 930 is clear proof that Atlanta means business when it comes to generational transit expansion,” said Katie Kirkpatrick, chief policy officer at the Metro Atlanta Chamber. “Access to transit increases access to jobs, education and healthcare choices for metro Atlanta residents.”

MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe also hailed the legislation.

“It gives MARTA the opportunity to increase its footprint in the Atlanta region,” Ashe said. “Beyond that, it creates the opportunity for transit to spread throughout metro Atlanta.”

Staff writers Meris Lutz, Tyler Estep and Scott Trubey contributed to this report