Georgia lawmakers pass metro Atlanta transit expansion bills

Two bills that could prompt a dramatic expansion of mass transit in metro Atlanta cleared major hurdles in the Georgia General Assembly on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 386 would allow 13 counties to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in sales taxes for public transportation.

House Bill 930 would do the same, and would add tens of millions of state dollars for transit expansion. Both bills would create a new board to oversee transit funding and construction across the region.

The bills passed their respective chambers by overwhelming votes. Lawmakers now face the tough work of reconciling significant differences between the two measures before the legislative session ends March 29. But on Wednesday, they paused to hail legislation that could produce the most sweeping expansion of mass transit in Georgia since the creation of the MARTA system more than 40 years ago.

"I think it's too important of an issue for us not to get it done this session," stat Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, who sponsored the House bill.

The legislation comes as metro Atlanta officials seek to lure Amazon's new headquarters and to alleviate some of the world's worst traffic – congestion that's only going to get worse as the region adds an expected 100,000 new residents a year. It also comes as Fulton and Gwinnett counties are preparing to ask voters to approve sales taxes to expand transit services.

The transit bills would authorize those referendums, allowing counties to collect transit sales taxes for up to 30 years. But they would also require the counties to seek approval of their project lists from the new regional board. The idea is to coordinate efforts across county lines and create a seamless regional transit system.

In addition, HB 930 would impose a 50-cent fee on all taxi, ride-sharing and other ground transportation rides, as well as a new 1 percent sales tax on airport concessions. The fee and tax would raise tens of millions of dollars for transit projects.

Under the bills, most county transit votes would be delayed until at least 2019. But the House bill includes a provision that would allow Gwinnett County residents to vote on joining MARTA later this year.

The House stripped its bill of a provision that could have paved the way for a transit expansion in south Cobb County. It would have allowed voters in a part of Cobb that's eager for more transit to pay for an expansion without requiring other parts of the county to participate. The provision was scrapped because Cobb lawmakers could not agree on the boundaries of the proposed district.

Like the other 12 counties in the region, Cobb would still be able to hold a countywide transit tax vote, though County Commission Chairman Mike Boyce believes such a vote would fail.

Boyce told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that negotiations over the size of the proposed transportation district will continue. He said it could be revived as House and Senate negotiators hash out an agreement on a final transit bill.

The House approved its bill by a vote of 162 to 13. The Senate approved its bill by a vote of 51 to 4.

Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, voted against SB 386. He expressed concern that local governments would lose control of their own transit projects.

“I do not believe counties should be required to cede all local control to an organization to which they have very little influence,” Tippins said during the Senate debate.

But both measures drew bipartisan support. State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, embraced transit on economic development grounds.

“Transit and transportation won’t guarantee economic development,” Smyre said. “But I can guarantee you this: Without transit and transportation, you will not have economic development.”

Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, sponsored the Senate bill. He said it would improve coordination among transit agencies across the region and improve the system for riders.

Beach recalled a 38-mile transit trip across county lines that took him two hours and required him to use multiple web sites and payment systems.

“I learned that day we have a very, very fragmented system that doesn’t work,” Beach said. “If we’re going to be a world-class region, I think we have to have a seamless, efficient transit system.”


Previously: Metro Atlanta officials have turned to legislators to help find solutions to ease the region’s notoriously bad traffic.

The latest: The House and Senate each passed bills Wednesday that could expand mass transit in the metro area.

What’s next: Lawmakers now reconcile the differences between the Senate and House bills before the legislative session ends March 29.