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A legislative end run could revive MARTA bill

A train pulls into Doraville station.
A train pulls into Doraville station.

With a little legislative maneuvering, a MARTA expansion bill that appeared dead a few days ago could lurch back to life.

The endangered legislation, Senate Bill 330, would have let residents of DeKalb and Fulton counties, who already pay a one-cent sales tax for MARTA, vote to up their contribution by a half-cent. The added revenue would have been used to extend MARTA rail to Alpharetta, Lithonia and through the busy Emory/CDC corridor.

Members of the Rules Committee in the Senate blocked a vote on SB 330 after raising concerns about the plan. But MARTA officials said Wednesday they are considering another way to expand transit service solely within the city of Atlanta, and perhaps DeKalb.

MARTA Chairman Robbie Ashe asked House delegates from Atlanta to consider introducing “local legislation” to allow a ballot initiative this November just for Atlanta voters. The sales tax, if approved, would bring in roughly $60 million a year for rail and bus service enhancements within the city limits.

Opponents from North Fulton promised “flaming opposition” to any such proposal.

It’s unclear what projects MARTA would pursue. The three major rail expansions MARTA is studying are primarily in North Fulton and DeKalb. MARTA officials have previously indicated that additional money from sales tax collections might be used to extend streetcar service to the Beltline.

The Atlanta City Council would help develop the project list, which would have to be approved by voters.

Local legislation introduced now could still get a vote in both chambers even though there are only eight working days left in the session, said Ashe.

“The city of Atlanta has been quite clear that it is ready for more transit, and it is ready now,” Ashe said. “There are other parts of our service area that maybe aren’t ready yet or don’t know exactly what they want to do yet. This is not an abandonment of the desire to push expansion into those other areas. But frankly, it is a recognition that you can only do what you can do. Sometimes you need to fight the fight over a multi-year period.”

One problem with this plan: using local legislation for this purpose may not be legal. A lawyer researching the issue should have the answer early next week, said Ashe.

Another option to keep the proposal alive, according to Ashe, is to insert the bill’s language into an existing piece of legislation in the House to bring the issue to the floor for a vote.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said in a statement Wednesday that “discussions to move MARTA funding forward are still going on. We’ll continue to stay at it, because I believe expanding MARTA is one of the most important things we can do to win the jobs war.”

He cited as evidence the recent jobs announcements from NCR, State Farm, Mercedes Benz USA, Porsche Cars North America, Kaiser Permanente and World Pay at sites near MARTA stations.

Fulton County elected officials will meet March 14 to consider what impact an Atlanta vote on a half-percent sales tax for transit could have on the county’s desire to pass a one-percent sales tax for road improvements this November. Fulton County’s Chief Operating Officer Todd Long said it might limit the county’s referendum to a half-penny.

The idea to keep MARTA’s expansion plans afloat found receptive audience among the Atlanta lawmakers. State Rep. Pat Gardner, D-Atlanta, who heads the House delegation, said she wants this for voters in her district.

“If you talk to any of my constituents, what do they want us to fix? Transit.” Gardner said.

However, lawmakers who opposed SB 330 because they want to pursue a more comprehensive regional transit solution said this new plan does nothing to address that concern. Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, predicted any attempts to revive the bill with creative legislative maneuvering would encounter “flaming opposition.”

And Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, said he doubts a rally for MARTA will happen so late in the session.

“Granted no bill ever dies until we gavel at midnight on day 40, but I do think in this case people have moved on,” Millar said.