MARTA bill faces uphill climb

Fulton and DeKalb county residents may soon have to decide whether to dig even deeper into their pockets to help pay for an $8 billion plan to expand MARTA.

Voters in those counties, who already pay a one-percent sales tax, could be asked to pay a half-percent more if proposed legislation filed Monday passes the General Assembly.

Senate Bill 313 would lay the groundwork for an expansion that would nearly double MARTA’s existing system. But it faces a tough climb. Transit supporters will first have to win over state lawmakers, then Fulton and DeKalb County Commissioners, and finally residents of each of those counties in a November referendum, before the plan could be set in motion.

“People are ahead of the politicians on this,” said Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, who sponsored the bill. “People want transit options.”

However, some members of the DeKalb and Fulton delegations say their constituents are tired of shouldering all the costs for a transit system that benefits the entire region.

“I don’t ever think you get regional transportation if only DeKalb and Fulton pony up,” said Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody. “We’re already paying a penny, so why pay another half penny?”

An $8 billion investment

MARTA officials say the half-penny tax could generate about $4 billion over the life of the tax (through 2057). And, if MARTA succeeded in gaining federal matching funds, the transit agency could then double that investment.

The $8 billion would be enough to extend heavy rail in two directions: north along Ga. 400 to Windward Parkway in Alpharetta and east along I-20 to the Mall at Stonecrest in Lithonia. It would also help build a new light rail line (think trolley or streetcar) to link the Lindbergh and Avondale stations through the busy Emory/CDC corridor.

There might even be enough money left over to expand streetcar service in Atlanta, or for some additional service in South Fulton, MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe has said.

While the exact scope of the projects is still uncertain, it would be nailed down by the time voters would cast ballots. According to the bill, MARTA would have to provide a list of which new projects would be built in each jurisdiction several months before the referendum. Because of the complicated planning and environmental approval process, completion of the projects would likely take 10 years or longer.

Key Democrats like Minority Whip Sen. Vincent Fort and House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams have said they support letting voters consider a half-penny sales tax hike for MARTA. However, the idea faces stern opposition from some conservatives like Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell.

Albers said North Fulton residents don’t want heavy rail in their backyard.

“It’s not that people are anti-transit,” Albers said. “They are smart, and they are educated. And they know that billions of dollars to bring something to our community that will not do anything to alleviate traffic — in fact it will increase traffic, and will take a decade to get there — makes no sense.”

County leaders uncertain

Even if state lawmakers pass the bill, commissioners in DeKalb and Fulton still have to approve the referendum before it can go before voters.

A sweeping transportation funding bill (House Bill 170) that passed last year allows counties to vote on a sales tax hike of up to 1 percent to fund local transportation projects.

Elected officials in Fulton and DeKalb have been in discussions for months about how to structure such a referendum and how to split the proceeds among cities and unincorporated areas.

However, Fulton County mayors and commissioners remain divided over how much money, if any, should go toward transit. The mayors of Alpharetta and Johns Creek in particular have voiced opposition to sharing proceeds with MARTA.

County leaders in Fulton have been debating whether to apportion MARTA a half-penny, a quarter-penny, or nothing at all.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who has been noticeably absent from meetings with other Fulton County mayors on the issue, said Monday that he would only support raising the city’s total sales tax from 8 to 9 percent if MARTA gets half of the additional money.

“If we end up in an arrangement where that’s the case, that’s something I’ll be excited about and something people in Atlanta will be excited about,” Reed said. “If we don’t, I’m doing to do everything I can to defeat the referendum.”

DeKalb County Commissioners also have objections to holding a MARTA referendum, at least this year.

The Board sent a letter to MARTA’s CEO Keith Parker and its Board of Directors on Jan. 26. It said the transit agency’s proposal competes with DeKalb’s first priority, to advance a one-cent sales tax referendum on Nov. 8, 2016 for the purpose of repairing the county’s crumbling road network.

The letter said that MARTA’s half-penny proposal “fails to provide a real solution to MARTA’s fiscal challenges.” DeKalb Commissioners urged the transit agency to instead develop “regional funding alternatives.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Staff writers Mark Niesse and Katie Leslie contributed to this story.