Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed joins Fulton transportation tax talks

This time, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was at the table.

It was a step forward for a group of Fulton County leaders who have been meeting regularly to hammer out an agreement about a potential new sales tax that would raise as much as $1.3 billion for transportation improvements over five years.

Though Reed had sent representatives in the past, Wednesday’s meeting at the Fulton County Government Center is the first time he attended the gatherings of mayors, commissioners and other leaders.

For some, though, the mayor’s presence felt like a step back. Reed appeared to hold a hard line about how to divide any potential funds between road improvements and transit — namely, a 50-50 split between roads and MARTA — when other mayors had already reached a compromise.

“I’m not in favor of MARTA waiting,” Reed said of the proposed compromise, which would keep some money from MARTA for several years. “Not only are we not unanimous; I will oppose the referendum on that basis.”

The sense of urgency to come to an agreement is only increasing as the timeline to create a list of projects for a potential November vote becomes more compressed.

“Thirteen mayors and the county really kind of coalesced,” Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle said. “It’s a shame he wasn’t engaged earlier. He put a line in the sand.”

The other leaders had largely agreed to put three quarters of a penny toward road improvements for five years, and a quarter of a cent to MARTA improvements. After five years, MARTA’s share would increase to half a cent. MARTA would have access to the tax for 40 years, while voters would have to approve the roads portion more frequently.

That split would allow short-term road improvements, leaders said, while still allowing MARTA to collect more than 90 percent of the money it was seeking.

Companies are leaving areas where they do not have access to MARTA, said state Senator Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, who has pushed for transit expansion in the county. It has been 18 years, he said, since MARTA last expanded.

“We’re getting beat, and we don’t need to get beat,” he said. “It’s about doing something visionary.”

Though conversations about what the appropriate form of transit in different parts of the county may be will continue, the mayors seem to agree that they need to spend some money on transit projects.

Reed, for his part, said he planned to attend the next meeting and was willing to talk about other options that still kept MARTA funded at the levels he hoped for.

“Any compromise you want along the 50-50 lines, I’m happy to meet with you,” he said.

For the first time, leaders also decided that if they couldn’t come to a decision that all the parties agreed to, they would not take the potential tax to voters. If consensus is not reached, the county has the option to ask for a maximum of three quarters of a penny and is limited in how it can distribute that money.

Fulton Chairman John Eaves said that he plans to talk to as many mayors as possible before the next meeting, next week, in an attempt to bring everyone together.

“It’s not easy, but we have to keep pushing forward and pushing forward,” he said. “If we don’t get on the same page, nobody wins.”

The decision about what to do, Roswell Mayor Jere Wood said, comes down to whether the leaders want some money or no money.

“I’m voting for something,” he said. “Let’s get the pie, then fight over who gets the biggest piece.”

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