Fulton County transit vote may not be possible in November

Time is running out, but Fulton County has not ruled out the possibility of holding a transit referendum in November.

County commissioners and Fulton's mayors met Monday to discuss a timeline for asking voters to approve a new sales tax to pay for bus rapid transit lines on Ga. 400 and South Fulton Parkway, as well as other transit improvements. Some officials urged their colleagues to push for a November referendum, arguing that a big general election turnout this year would boost its chances of passing.

“If we do anything other (than a November vote), it would be backpedaling,” said Union City Mayor Vince Williams. “And it would be getting off the track of what we committed ourselves to come here to do.”

Others want to put the brakes on a referendum so more information can be gathered to convince reluctant elected officials and voters that a transit expansion is the best way to alleviate the region's horrible traffic congestion. That could delay a vote until 2019 or beyond.

“I can tell you it’s all but an assurance that, if this group continues to move toward a November 2018 referendum, Johns Creek (officials) will be out,” Mayor Mike Bodker said. “The City Council will not be rushed into this, absent seeing evidence (for transit) well in advance.”

The group decided to proceed as if a November referendum is possible. A final decision likely will come soon.

Monday's meeting is the latest is a months-long tug of war over a mass-transit expansion in Georgia's largest county. In January, the same group of elected officials tentatively approved a long-term transit plan for the rest of Fulton County outside Atlanta (which approved its own transit expansion in 2016). Meanwhile, the General Assembly last month approved House Bill 930, which authorizes Fulton and 12 other metro Atlanta counties to hold transit votes.

The legislation specifically authorizes Fulton County to impose a transit sales tax of up to .2 percent. If approved by voters, the tax would generate up to $1.3 billion over 30 years.

Still, some officials believe the November vote may not be possible.

For a referendum to occur, the legislation requires the consent of city governments that represent a combined 70 percent of the county’s population outside Atlanta. Officials in Johns Creek – which accounts for more than 14 percent of the population – have expressed serious misgivings about a new transit tax. If they remain opposed, that leaves little wiggle room to lose the consent of other cities.

Bodker said his City Council members might be persuadable. But he said they want detailed information about how the proposed transit lines would alleviate traffic congestion.

MARTA officials say they can provide ridership estimates for the new transit lines over the next month. But that leaves almost no margin for error in the approval process to keep a November referendum on track. The required meetings and notices would have to begin in May.

“If we want to go for a vote in November, we have to start right now,” County Commissioner Liz Hausmann said. “May is next week. I don’t know, honestly, if we’re in a position to move forward (with a November referendum).”