Fulton seeks to overcome political and traffic gridlock

For decades, many have viewed Fulton County as the poster child for political dysfunction, with its partisan, geographic and racial divides.

But a series of political developments in recent years has helped bridge those divisions and could pave the way for progress in resolving the region’s transportation gridlock.

Elected officials from Fulton County and its 14 cities have huddled for months to craft a sales tax referendum that, if approved, could generate $1.3 billion for road and transit projects in the heart of metro Atlanta.

Recent discussions show success is far from assured. Significant disagreements – such as how much, if anything, to give to MARTA – remain unresolved. And state law requires that, in order to pass a 1 percent sales tax, the various governments involved unanimously approve the plan that will be submitted to voters – a steep hurdle for Georgia’s largest county.

Several participants expressed optimism they’ll reach an agreement, though perhaps not in time for a referendum next November. One incentive: With every passing year, Atlanta’s traffic problems are likely to worsen as millions of new residents are expected to flock to the region.

“If you think traffic is bad today, it’s only going to become increasingly worse,” said Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul.

Until recently, it seemed unlikely that Fulton County’s elected officials could set aside their differences to even discuss Atlanta’s most pressing problem, let alone agree on a solution.

Frustrated by a county government they deemed unresponsive, Fulton residents have formed several new cities over the last decade – an incorporation movement that continues to reshape metro Atlanta. Even after forming those cities, many residents and city officials – especially in north Fulton, where some residents want to break away and form their own county – continued to complain that they get little for their county tax money.

In 2013, Republicans in the General Assembly responded to those complaints by passing a series of measures designed to remake Fulton County government. One key change: Redrawing county commission districts to give Republicans a third seat on the seven-member County Commission.

The new commission that took office last January has sought to make Fulton government more efficient and customer friendly. It also has tried to mend relations with local cities. Chairman John Eaves has convened a series of meetings among elected officials in recent months, and transportation has been a top concern.

Last spring, the General Assembly gave local governments a new tool to address that concern, approving House Bill 170. The law allows Georgia counties and their cities to propose five-year sales taxes of up to 1 percent to pay for local transportation projects. Voters get the final say.

To encourage collaboration, the maximum falls to .75 percent, significantly reducing the proceeds, if all the governments involved don’t agree to a specific transportation plan for voter consideration.

In addition, without unanimous consent, the law imposes a formula for distributing the money that could give the City of Atlanta more than 90 percent of the proceeds, likely sapping support for the measure outside the city.

That’s a tremendous incentive to find a plan that everyone can agree on. As Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker put it at a recent meeting, “The bottom line is, we rise or fall together.”

County commissioners and mayors have begun to hash out the details of a proposal they could take to voters. Each government would develop its own project list, within certain parameters. They’d finish those lists by next spring and – assuming they can all agree – formally propose a referendum in the summer.

But significant questions must be answered in coming weeks to meet that timeline. Most of the elected officials who attended a meeting earlier this month want proceeds from the tax divided among the governments by population. But a representative of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed suggested other factors – like employment or miles of roads within each jurisdiction – could be considered.

Perhaps an even bigger sticking point is whether MARTA will get any of the money. The regional transit agency plans to ask the General Assembly to change the law to allow it to get half the proceeds from the sales tax and to extend the life of the tax from five years to 42. That would allow MARTA to borrow money for significant expansions and would make those projects eligible for federal funding.

Johns Creek officials oppose giving any of the sales tax to MARTA. They say their residents receive no direct benefit from the agency.

“It only takes one party to pushing away from the table” to scuttle a deal, Bodker, the city’s mayor, said at this month’s meeting. “From all media accounts, you know that Johns Creek may be that party. That’s not a threat. It’s just a reality.”

The group is searching for potential compromises. For example, Eaves has suggested MARTA might be satisfied with a quarter of the proceeds of the tax, rather than half. But it’s unclear whether any compromise can get unanimous approval.

The fate of the transportation measure may be decided at a January meeting. Roswell Mayor Jere Wood said he’s not optimistic an agreement can be reached on such a short timetable. If the current effort fails, he said the General Assembly should consider changing the law to allow for proposals that don’t require unanimous support.

Eaves sounded more optimistic. He said the discussions to date have been productive, and it’s reasonable to assume a deal can be struck.

“We’re trending in a positive direction,” he said.