A first sign of alliances around MARTA’s rail push into north Fulton

Last week, John Eaves, chairman of the Fulton County Commission, hosted a meeting with all the mayors in his county to discuss how a one-cent sales tax for transportation, which could be put on the November 2016 ballot, might be divvied up among all parties.

Eleven mayors attended. Other cities, including Atlanta, sent representatives.

Toward the end of the session, all nine mayors present said they wanted the entire amount – several hundred million dollars raised over five years – spent on roads and bridges.

The sharp-eyed among you have just noticed that, somehow, eleven mayors became nine in the space of a single paragraph.

That’s because the mayors of Sandy Springs and Roswell, Rusty Paul and Jere Wood, respectively, left early. They walked the two blocks to Atlanta City Hall, in search of Mayor Kasim Reed and a topic that had been lost in the mix: The expansion of MARTA’s rail system into north Fulton.

The meeting of the three mayors was brief but cordial, participants say. Reed acknowledged the need to negotiate on the topic, yet said he will want top MARTA officials, CEO Keith Parker and board chairman Robbie Ashe, in the room when it happens.

But in and of itself, the impromptu gathering of the mayors of Sandy Springs, Roswell and Atlanta was a geographic display of an alliance that might – and let's stress that last word — be forming around MARTA's $8 billion pitch to change the face of metro Atlanta.

Likewise, it was a demonstration of significant Republican reluctance to embrace the changing attitude toward commuter rail. The mayors of Alpharetta and Johns Creek, whose residents would be served by that MARTA expansion, had a chance to endorse it. And passed.

Behind the MARTA push is the economic development argument that businesses are becoming more and more dependent on millennial employees – and they want out of their cars.

David Belle Isle, mayor of Alpharetta, isn’t biting. “Millennials want Alpharetta. They just don’t know it,” Belle Isle said. “Millennials are people, at the end of the day. They’re going to have children.” Good schools and affordable housing will become more important than commuting options, he predicted.

Nonetheless, Belle Isle said he has already extracted a promise from MARTA. If the transit agency does push across the Chattahoochee River, any development associated with it – housing and businesses that might be built on MARTA property – would be subject to local zoning.

Plenty of Republicans in north Fulton have grown amenable to commuter rail. State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, who is president and CEO of the Greater North Fulton Chamber, is a prominent supporter.

But the issue can still be described as thin ice. Jere Wood, the mayor of Roswell, might have sought out the mayor of Atlanta last week. But he still describes himself as only “open” to the idea of MARTA rail in his city – depending on what his voters think.

Earlier this month, two incumbent Roswell city council members lost their bids for re-election. Wood is paying attention.

To explain what might happen next will require a trip into the weeds.

The transportation funding bill that was passed last year, intended to inject nearly $1 billion a year into road and bridge repair, also gave counties the option to levy a one percent, five-year sales tax – also for transportation purposes. Contingent upon a popular referendum, of course.

This was the topic of the Monday mayoral meeting convened by John Eaves, chairman of the Fulton County commission. Eaves sees himself as the “facilitator” of the discussion.

“I want to find a win-win, where the need for roads is met, and the need for transit is met,” Eaves said. And he wants that agreement by January.

Odds are against Eaves and MARTA in this venue. Under the terms of House Bill 170, the transportation funding measure, all parties involved – each individual mayor in Fulton County plus the county commission, must sign off on the “intergovernmental agreement” that determines how revenue from the sales tax would be spent.

Atlanta’s push to use some of that money to fund its Beltline effort will be controversial enough.

Worse, the mayor of tiny Mountain Park (population 547 in 2010) — or any other mayor — can veto the entire package. Yeah, that’s a problem.

If there’s no agreement, the county commission can put up a referendum on a .75 percent sales tax.

What MARTA and other backers of the rail line want is for the Fulton County commission and the mayors to cap their sales tax referendum – whatever the content – at a half penny.

In January, MARTA will go to the Legislature and ask for a change to H.B. 170: It wants to permission to claim the other half of the county SPLOST penny, through a separate referendum, in Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties. For rail expansion in each.

The tax wouldn’t be for five years. It would be for 42 years, so that the tax could serve as the basis for long-term construction bonds, and a significant portion of operation and maintenance.

This is a political effort with an extraordinary number of moving pieces. Only if everything goes exactly right will we see something on next November’s ballot. “Even if we don’t come up with a solution this year, the problem is still going to be there,” said Wood, the Roswell mayor. “Whether we meet a deadline doesn’t change the picture.”

But the first thing that will be needed is a Fulton County that doesn’t fracture along the usual lines of race and geography.

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