Legislators pondering a MARTA expansion referendum

A plan to expand MARTA with funds from an additional half-cent sales tax in Fulton and DeKalb is getting more and more attention from Georgia lawmakers, although not all that attention is positive.

“I’m for it,” said prominent Republican Sen. Brandon Beach of Alpharetta at a gathering of state transportation industry leaders, corporations and lawmakers on Tuesday. “I’m for the voters being able to decide if they want that half-penny to go towards transit expansion. I think transit is going to become more and more important, especially with economic development.”

Beach cited recent corporate hub relocations like State Farm, Kaiser Permanente, Mercedes-Benz, NCR and PulteGroup as proof of MARTA’s draw. All of the relocation decisions were driven, at least in part, by access to transit.

At Tuesday’s Georgia Transportation Summit hosted by the American Council of Engineering Companies of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Transportation in partnership with the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, Michael Sullivan was sounding a similar note. Sullivan is chairman of the Georgia Transportation Alliance, a policy arm of the chamber that has advocated for increased transportation spending. The alliance was a key supporter of a sweeping, $1 billion-per-year transportation funding bill that passed earlier this year and took effect July 1.

That money is going toward roads and bridges, not MARTA. But finding a way to financially support the transit agency is the next logical step, Sullivan said.

“I think it has a real shot,” Sullivan said. “Pardon the pun, I think that’s a train that’s leaving the station. Whether it reaches its destination the 2016 session or the 2017 session, we need it as a region and as a state.”

Beach and Sullivan both noted that 2016 is an election year, meaning the issue could mean the issue gets bumped to 2017 if MARTA doesn’t get traction quickly after the session starts in January. Capitol-watchers agree the next session is likely to be a short one. And other issues like education reform and casino gambling loom large.

Fran Millar, R-Atlanta, said that he believes the bill will face serious opposition from the DeKalb and Fulton delegations.

"You have this sense by a lot of us that we've been paying one penny for how long, and don't tell me everybody doesn't benefit from MARTA," Millar said. "Some of us think if we're going to have a regional transportation system, let's let regional people pay for it."

MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe explained to about 700 summit attendees on Tuesday that the new transportation funding bill that passed this year (HB 170) enabled counties to collect up to a penny per dollar for transportation projects, if voters give the OK in a referendum. However, state lawmakers would need to tweak the law during the next legislative session so the money could go to MARTA rather than to a county.

Also, MARTA wants the time frame for the additional sales tax to be extended from its current cap of five years to 42 years, so that it matches the life of the existing sales tax collections in Clayton, Fulton and DeKalb and so that MARTA can borrow against the proceeds.

By issuing bonds, MARTA could use the estimated $200 million in new sales tax revenue to bankroll about $4 billion of construction, Ashe said. If MARTA obtained federal matching funds, it could be looking at an $8 billion windfall. Enough, MARTA officials think, to nearly double the existing size of the system and transform the region.

The money could pay for a heavy rail expansion along Ga. 400 to Alpharetta, a heavy rail expansion along I-20 East in South DeKalb and a light rail or trolley system to connect MARTA to the vastly underserved Emory/CDC corridor. It might even be enough to help the city of Atlanta realize its goal of expanding Streetcar service to the Beltline, Ashe has said.

Millar said MARTA may not be able to get all the federal match funding it is aiming for, in which case it would have to downgrade its ambitions for heavy rail to bus rapid transit or else pick and choose between items on its project list. He said MARTA should be transparent about which projects would go first, second and third, as well as lay out the estimated timetable for construction before it seeks approval for more funding.

"Let's lay it all out there," Millar said. "Those are the questions that need to be asked and answered."

State Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, who is majority whip and vice-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said that while he supports MARTA, he believes that time is needed to measure the effects of HB 170 before lawmakers make another major decision on transportation funding.

“I think there’s some potential there to have that discussion,” Gooch said. “I don’t know if it is crucial that we move on it this year.”

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