Report: MARTA plan could be multi-billion dollar boon to metro Atlanta

A $8 billion plan to expand MARTA could inject $5.2 billion into the region’s economy over the next two and a half decades, a new study shows.

It could also lead to 45,000 new jobs, $1.8 billion saved from loss of revenue due to commuters sitting in traffic and $116 million in increased wages, among other benefits. The estimates are spotlighted in a report released this week by the Metro Atlanta Chamber and Georgia Transportation Alliance (a policy arm of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce) to make a business case for proposed legislation that would help nearly double the size of MARTA’s existing system.

The legislation, Senate Bill 330, would let voters in DeKalb and Fulton counties elect to pay an additional half-percent sales tax for MARTA. For each dollar invested in transit, according to the report, economic returns for metro Atlanta would quadruple.

Some lawmakers, however, are skeptical of the study, which was drafted by and and on behalf of companies that could potentially profit from a MARTA expansion.

“I trust the Chamber and Transportation Alliance,” said state Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, who has been critical of MARTA’s expansion plan. “What I would be concerned with is if they only put the things in there that support the conclusion they wish to advocate. That’s what I have seen happen before.”

Meanwhile, Senate Transportation Committee members heard a presentation of the report Tuesday and many seemed receptive to growing MARTA.

“We’re finally getting there,” said Sen. Bill Jackson, R-Appling. “There are going to have to be some rails. For a city as big as Atlanta, we cannot fund enough highways.”

MARTA is studying three possible expansions: a heavy rail extension northward along Ga. 400 to Alpharetta, a heavy rail extension east along I-20 to the Mall at Stonecrest in Lithonia, and a light rail line connecting the Lindbergh and Avondale stations through Decatur.

Completion of the projects would significantly increase the number of jobs located within a half-mile of a rail station from 800,000 to 1.4 million.

The company that produced the report, HNTB Corp., is a global transportation engineering firm that has designed transit systems in other cities.

Compared to five other “peer cities” — Denver, Dallas, Los Angeles, Portland and Washington D.C. — the city is falling behind due to lack of investment in transit, said Ehren T. Bingaman, HNTB Director of Transportation Planning. MARTA has not expanded its rail system since the North Springs Station was completed in 2000.

Meanwhile, other cities have expanded their systems through funding policies that allowed for additional local investment — be it through a special sales tax, increased property tax millage or some other form of financial support, Bingaman said.

MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe said the study puts real numbers behind what the transit agency has argued for some time. He pointed to the recent relocations of corporate hubs for Pulte Homes, Mercedes, Kaiser Permanente and State Farm near rail stations as evidence of MARTA’s power to attract business to Georgia.

“The truth of the matter is, having a robust transit network is an essential part of economic competition in the 21st century,” Ashe said.

Martin, the Republican from Alpharetta, said Wednesday that he hadn’t read the study yet but remains skeptical of it.

Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, one of the most vocal opponents of MARTA rail expansion in North Fulton, said, “I will weigh the validity of studies based on the authors and special interests associated to them.”

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