Fulton leaders get closer to transportation compromise

The pieces of a transportation plan are starting to come together in Fulton County.

Whether officials can reach an agreement on a variety of issues involving a proposed new sales tax in time for a November vote, though, is still a question.

One of the biggest sticking points is whether MARTA will be part of the final proposal — and how much the transit agency might get.

On Wednesday, there was still some distance between Fulton County mayors and county commissioners as to how much money should potentially go to the transit agency, as opposed to being divided among cities and the county’s unincorporated area for their own projects. How much they are willing to move to reach a consensus remains to be seen.

Consensus is key.

If all the parties agree, they can ask Fulton County voters for a sales tax increase of as much as a full penny on every dollar, which could bring in $1.4 billion over five years. If they don’t, they will be forced to ask for no more than three-quarters of a cent. In that case, the proceeds would be distributed based on how much each jurisdiction has spent on transportation over the past three years.

Also if all agree, they can decide not only how much of a tax to levy, but how to divide it among themselves. Leaders seemed to be willing to compromise on a population-based distribution, though some preferred a split that also considered employment population or road mileage.

“People seem to be willing to make compromises,” Roswell Mayor Jere Wood said. “But I’ll be surprised if it all comes together in the end.”

Many seemed to be considering the possibility of collecting three-quarters of a penny to pay for local transportation projects and leaving MARTA on its own to ask voters for a quarter cent of the available penny. Others, however, seemed wary of leaving MARTA with too much or too little.

Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle worried that expanded MARTA service in his area would further hurt road congestion because of an increase in people who might drive to his city to access transit.

And in South Fulton, there were questions about how residents might benefit if most of the money for MARTA projects would go to the north.

“There’s winners and losers in every process,” Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said.

The final decision on what portion MARTA might get, and whether to move forward at all, will have huge implications for job centers and economic development in Fulton and metro Atlanta, Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker said.

John Eaves, the Fulton County chairman, said he thinks the discussions are helping the county and cities coalesce “around something that has potential.” The issues, he said, can be addressed.

“I think we’re making progress,” Eaves said. “I think we’re trending in a very, very positive direction.”