Fulton carries transit clout but is deeply divided

Support from Fulton County could push a transportation sales tax over the victory line in next year’s referendum, but first it has to overcome the reservations — even hostility — of some voters and elected officials.

Winning this crucial county means appealing to voters whose needs vary from solving traffic bottlenecks to getting better service from MARTA — and to some who don’t want anything if they don’t get suburban help paying for that mass transit system.

Combined with DeKalb, Fulton could have the most pull in determining the outcome of next summer’s ballot. Fulton has almost a quarter of the 10-county region’s registered voters and — if turnout in the July 2008 general primary is any guide — could make up about 18 percent of the showing at the polls.

“Fulton and DeKalb are extremely important for the passage of this region,” said Ray Christman, director of the Livable Communities Coalition, whose early polling found these counties must support the tax strongly.

Fulton is the transportation hub of the metro area:

● Each workday, its population swells by about 350,000 as commuters pour in, according to census data.

● By far, it has the largest number of workers commuting from another county and accommodates the most vehicle traffic each day, based on a study by the Atlanta Regional Commission.

● Fulton’s highway and paved street miles (3,460) are 210 more than Gwinnett, its closest rival.

● With 31 miles of MARTA track, Fulton has more local passenger heavy rail than any other county.

James Ketchen, who lives in southwest Atlanta just outside the Perimeter, said he’ll vote for the referendum. Though he’s an anti-tax libertarian, he said that with the state government running dry on transportation dollars, he sees no other way to pay for badly needed upgrades.

“I agree, reluctantly,” Ketchen said. “It’s got to be paid for by somebody.”

So what does Fulton need? Everything. Roads need paving, intersections need widening, bridges need fixing, and MARTA needs repairs and new security systems.

But political leaders from both ends of Fulton County have been hostile to the referendum plan. The issues range from the MARTA tax — which is paid only in Fulton, DeKalb and the city of Atlanta, so some people there resent taking on another transportation tax — to why Fulton and DeKalb have only five votes on the 21-vote regional roundtable despite making up about 40 percent of the region’s population. The roundtable will pick the list of transportation projects for the referendum.

Only a fraction of the projects local officials submitted for consideration will make the final list, but those requested so far could change life for the better.

Workers could ride commuter buses in dedicated lanes across the top end of I-285, connecting with shopping centers, office buildings and MARTA. Malfunctioning MARTA escalators could get a $123 million overhaul, and the transit agency could fix electrical systems and install better station lighting and new security cameras on buses and trains.

Sandy Springs’ $190 million plan to rework Ga. 400 north of I-285 could ease the daily bottleneck there. The county government’s $23.6 million proposal to expand the Cascade Road/I-285 interchange could pave the way for development and upscale dining in a corridor now occupied mostly by chain restaurants, said Ralph Vaughn, executive director of the Cascade Business and Merchants Association.

“It’s going to really open up the gateway to south Fulton,” Vaughn said.

But Fulton Commissioner William “Bill” Edwards, who represents the Cascade area, predicts the referendum will fail in Fulton.

“These people,” said Edwards, riding along Cedar Grove Road in rural south Fulton, “you know what they want? Nothing. They’re not going to pay another penny for anything, and especially not for something where they’re not represented.”

A.W. Davis retired to his pastoral patch of south Fulton to escape the din of the city and bedlam of the highways. He doesn’t want to pay for road widenings, intersection reconfigurations and public transit extensions when a growing population will overrun those projects, too.

“We need roads like we need a hole in the head, and we don’t need any more people,” said Davis, a former high school economics teacher.

The mayors in north Fulton approved a resolution to support the tax but on the condition they get a regional transportation authority, so other counties will share in the cost of MARTA’s future. Roswell Mayor Jere Wood said he isn’t convinced that will happen anytime soon.

“Fulton and DeKalb would like it today. Gwinnett and Cobb would like it 30 years from now,” Wood said.

Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, who chairs the regional roundtable and represents Gwinnett County, said the focus should be on establishing a regional transportation agency to ensure future costs are shared.

“Obviously, if and when transit comes into Gwinnett County and Cobb County, we’re understanding there’s money to be paid for that,” he said.

Shana Finney, a legal secretary who commutes on MARTA from her home in Sandy Springs, said she’d pay more for better transit and she thinks other Atlantans would, too. But she’s skeptical that suburbanites would pay for mass transit linking them to Atlanta. “I think they’d fight it tooth and nail,” she said.

In a county as diverse as Fulton, interests vary. In March, when governments throughout the state were turning in project wish lists, Fulton was unable to speak with one voice — a problem that Cobb and Gwinnett didn’t have.

Fulton’s cities submitted independently, and the Fulton County government’s list covered only the unincorporated south, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Political strategist Glenn Totten, hired to strategize a campaign for the referendum, said the tone in Fulton could change for the better once people see a final project list.

“If the extra penny is going to deliver something that the first penny [the MARTA tax] doesn’t, then it’s going to be in their interests to vote for it,” Totten said.

Search projects and leave your comments

Cities and towns submitted their wish lists in March: more than 400 projects worth up to $29 billion or more. Go to ajc.com/go/transportation to see which projects hit closest to home and which have regional effects.

Staff writer Ariel Hart contributed to this article.

Search projects and leave your comments

Cities and towns submitted their wish lists in March: more than 400 projects worth up to $29 billion or more. Go to ajc.com/go/transportation to see which projects hit closest to home and which have regional effects.