MARTA pushes new route to expansion

Days after MARTA’s biggest expansion plan in decades went down in flames, a smaller but still potentially transformative proposal has risen from the ashes.

With the last day of the Georgia General Assembly’s session looming March 24, MARTA has embarked on a legislative push to accomplish its $8 billion plan in pieces over several years, instead of all at once. But some lawmakers are pushing back, saying MARTA expansion needs to wait another year while a study committee weighs the development of a regional transit network.

“It’s not about MARTA or one or two corridors,” said state Sen. Steve Gooch, a Dahlonega Republican who is vice-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “It’s about regional transit for the entire metro area.”

Not everyone agrees.

“We can’t wait for another study committee,” said state Rep. Pat Gardner, an Atlanta Democrat. “We have a crisis.”

Gardner, who was on the 2011 Joint Transit Governance Study Commission, notes that the commission’s recommendation to create a regional transit agency went nowhere.

How to eat an elephant

MARTA initially sought legislative approval for a half-percent sales tax referendum in DeKalb and Fulton counties, the proceeds of which would fund a near-doubling of MARTA’s existing rail network. The life of the tax was to be through 2057, enabling the agency to issue long-term bonds that it needs to finance the projects.

Although it seemed initially that the stars might align for a favorable MARTA vote by a long-reluctant Legislature, the effort came undone in the Senate Rules Committee, which bottled up the bill and kept it from reaching the Senate floor.

With few exceptions, elected officials across Atlanta’s Northern Arc opposed the MARTA intiative, saying either that it was too expensive or that it didn’t embrace the entire region. In the face of that opposition, particularly from North Fulton County, MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe conceded last week that expanding rail along Ga. 400 in North Fulton was a political nonstarter, at least for now.

Ashe asked state lawmakers to instead consider introducing “local legislation” that would allow separate referendums in the city of Atlanta and DeKalb County only. Local legislation is a special class of bill that applies only to a single county or, in the case of Atlanta, a single city. If the delegation from the city or county wants such a bill to pass, the Legislature typically observes the doctrine of “district courtesy” and approves it without discussion.

Ashe said that the local measures may encounter less opposition.

“It’s like the old saying: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,” said Ashe. “Atlanta may be the first bite. DeKalb, the second.”

The rest of Fulton County could follow later, after its residents decide what kind of transit they want, Ashe said.

Winners and losers

If the sales tax hike is approved in Atlanta and DeKalb, MARTA could still build two of the three major expansion projects that transit advocates have been clamoring for. It could extend heavy rail east along I-20 East to the Mall at Stonecrest in Lithonia and build a light-rail line through the Emory/CDC corridor. The additional sales tax revenue would also fund enhanced bus service and, perhaps, bring streetcars to the Beltline.

Yet even the more narrowly tailored plan might still encounter opposition among lawmakers from other parts of metro Atlanta.

Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, a member of the Senate Rules Committee, said Monday she was concerned that MARTA’s proposal might crowd out the possibility of further transit development in Cobb and Gwinnett. She said the two counties have no incentive to join MARTA and pay the tax when it might take 12-plus years to extend rail lines into the counties. Unterman pointed out that Cobb and Gwinnett already operate transit buses.

GOP senators say the proposed study committee would develop a regional transit plan that includes improvements for Gwinnett and Cobb. The committee could also examine potential funding sources beyond just a sales tax increase.

Sen. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, said MARTA alone should not be allowed to set the course for transit development.

“Atlanta is going to grow across the north side and around the south side, not just along Ga. 400,” said Martin. “If we try to come up with a predetermined solution, we are picking winners and losers economically.”

Atlanta on board, DeKalb uncertain

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has been unequivocal in his support for a MARTA half-penny sales tax. He has even gone so far as to say he would actively work to defeat any transportation sales tax effort in Fulton County that did not include money for MARTA. Atlanta’s legislative delegation also sounded a willingness to consider introducing a local bill when MARTA requested the action this week.

In DeKalb County, though, the prospects for passage — or at least getting the referendum before voters — are less certain. Even if local legislation allowed it, county leaders may not agree to schedule the ballot initiative.

Last month, DeKalb commissioners unanimously approved a resolution saying they did not support a MARTA referendum in 2016. Commissioners were concerned it might compete with DeKalb’s first priority: passing a 1-cent local sales tax on Nov. 8, 2016, to help repair the county’s crumbling road network. MARTA should develop more “regional funding alternatives,” and the state should help pay for the system, the resolution said.

Commissioner Jeff Rader said that nothing so far has changed their minds about supporting a MARTA referendum, in 2016 or 2017. He said it’s possible, however, that as many as four commissioners could be swayed (enough to overrule the other three) next year — “it could change on a dime, maybe.” Some on the commission are already arguing about which project should go first if a MARTA referendum were approved, the I-20 extension or the light-rail line through the Emory area, Rader said.

Lithonia Mayor Deborah Jackson said her residents badly want the I-20 extension. She estimated that a third of the area’s adult population doesn’t own a car.

“It really would be helpful in terms of increasing people’s mobility, access to employment centers and ability to move around,” Jackson said.