EDITORIAL: The next big step

The state Legislature should act this year to let local voters decide whether to raise new money for MARTA expansion.

Of late, Georgia’s leaders have made much over the admittedly significant accomplishments toward improving Georgia’s overstressed transportation networks. As the state Legislature got underway last month, Georgians were given details of how nearly $1 billion annually in new money will be driven toward improving mobility.

That’s great news, yet Georgians should keep in mind that there’s a sizable asterisk to the announced project lists. As in the money from the hard-won House Bill 170’s revamped fuel taxes will go toward roads and bridges.

This work is certainly needed. It’s as important in our view, though, to remember that, aside from a modest, one-time amount of bonding capacity, this state’s transit needs remain unaddressed.

That should change. The future of metro Atlanta, and the entire state, demands no less. The time has come for the Georgia General Assembly to start paving a pathway ahead for transit, especially MARTA.

Even in an election year where a sizable number of voters are still hot over 2015’s passage of a gas tax hike, the Legislature should summon the courage to act toward fixing a remaining big shortfall in transportation funding here.

Lawmakers showed wisdom and fortitude in weathering opposition to pass HB170 which, as Gov. Nathan Deal pointed out last month during the annual Eggs and Issues forum, appropriately tasks road users with helping pay for highway improvements. Given Georgia’s congestion problems, legislators chose to meet the increasing needs of a growing state.

It’s time to do the same thing for transit funding. It should prove an easier political lift, even in an election year. Legislation now before the Georgia Senate does not call for a statewide tax hike that would likely prove unpopular in many corners. Rather, the bills introduced by Sen. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta) call for a process squarely in line with the conservative philosophy of local governance. The bills would simply facilitate a local vote on whether to increase the sales tax in MARTA’s service area, with some portion dedicated for expanding rapid transit.

Giving voters in Fulton and DeKalb counties the opportunity to decide their future is the right thing to do, and should carry minimal Election Day risk for the tax-averse majority at the Gold Dome.

We also believe granting this power to the people, so to speak, could yield surprising results, given signs of attitudinal change toward transit.

A new report, “Economic Benefits of Investing in Transit,” notes that businesses “are specifically looking for proximity to transit as a key feature in location decisions.” That’s apparent to anyone coming passing the construction site for State Farm’s new Dunwoody headquarters. It is physically impossible for its rising office tower to be any closer to a MARTA line. State Farm wanted it that way. Other private-sector employers have likewise sought to locate near transit lines. We suspect they’re aware of insights and trends that still seem suspect to some members of the General Assembly.

Recent polls show voters warming toward the idea of metro transit expansion. An October poll by McLaughlin & Associates of 600 likely general election voters in Fulton and DeKalb showed 49 percent would oppose a roads-only sales tax. Forty-two percent favored such a plan.

These numbers and others, suggest an upward ride in support for MARTA and some form of additional rapid transit.

Lawmakers should pay attention to that, and act accordingly – sooner and not later. The ability to keep calling Georgia the best state in which to do business rides in good part on legislative action in this regard.

They should enable the people closest to this decision — the voters — to make this choice..