MARTA and Fulton County have reached an agreement they hope can clear the way for more transit expansion beyond Atlanta.
MARTA has agreed to pay the operating costs of new bus rapid transit lines along Ga. 400 and South Fulton Parkway out of its existing 1 percent sales tax revenue, according to a letter obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The agency would still need additional money to pay for capital costs for the new lines, including the acquisition of rights-of-way and construction of transit stations.
The deal comes as Fulton elected officials are debating a transit expansion plan that would require voters to approve an additional sales tax of up to a half-cent. Some north Fulton elected officials say MARTA should offer more service from its existing sales tax before asking voters to approve another one.
The bus rapid transit deal could alleviate those concerns. State Rep. Jan Jones, R-Milton, said the agreement is a step in the right direction, but she’d like to see MARTA pay for some of the capital costs of the new transit lines.
“I’m pleased with that letter,” Jones said. “That’s a piece of it.”
Others were not convinced.
“For almost 50 years the taxpayers of north Fulton have paid into the MARTA system with little to no service,” said Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell. “A request for additional funding is unconscionable. Similar to families and businesses, MARTA must become more efficient and expand within the current budget and not add tax increases to citizens.”
In January Fulton County mayors agreed on a plan to expand transit outside the city of Atlanta, where voters have already approved a transit expansion. Among other things, the plan includes several new bus rapid transit and arterial rapid transit routes.
But north Fulton officials want MARTA to pay for at least some of the expansion out if its existing sales tax. MARTA is trying to satisfy that demand.
In a March 12 letter to County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts, MARTA Interim CEO Elizabeth O’Neill wrote the agency has been “carefully reviewing the anticipated costs” of bus rapid transit service along Ga. 400 and South Fulton Parkway.
“After such review, MARTA believes that the operations and maintenance costs of these BRT routes, at the service levels and areas scope set forth in the Fulton County Transit Master Plan Study, can be incorporated in future budgets funded by the existing 1-cent sales tax,” O’Neill wrote.
County Commissioner Liz Hausmann responded in a letter Wednesday, saying MARTA’s decision “is very helpful to any plans to expand transit service outside the City of Atlanta.”
Others also welcomed the news. Milton Mayor Joe Lockwood said MARTA’s decision “absolutely” made a difference to him. He said he could support raising the sales tax by a quarter penny to pay for the construction of BRT lines in north Fulton.
“I think it makes the most sense,” he said. “Obviously, it’s up to the citizens, but I could support it.”
But some still aren’t sold on a transit expansion, even with the MARTA pledge.
“We need to see the business case (for transit),” said Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker. “I don’t think we should ever invest taxpayer dollars without a reasonable expectation that what we’re building will actually be used.”
Hausmann is optimistic about the prospects for the bus rapid transit project on Ga. 400. She thinks regional transit legislation pending in the General Assembly could provide state funding.
“We still have a lot of momentum on the project,” she said.
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