Thinking big about transit: Would you rather ride MARTA or the ATL?

So maybe you’re a suburban Republican, and maybe the thought of MARTA still gives you the heebie-jeebies. Then perhaps you’d prefer to hop a ride on the ATL, a single and unified transit system that operates throughout metro Atlanta.

Two weeks ago, MARTA hoisted an ambitious trial balloon: A proposed $8 billion expansion of heavy rail in metro Atlanta capped by a five-station foray up Ga. 400, all the way to Alpharetta.

The conversation has barely begun, but two things have quickly become clear. First, much of the debate will pit incrementalists against those who prefer to swing for the fences. A state-sponsored transit system, absorbing MARTA and re-branded the Atlanta Transit Link, is one of many ideas being touted by the Hank Aaron set.

Secondly, the effort would require a bipartisan alliance, in metro Atlanta and Washington, along the lines of the one that secured federal funding for deepening the Port of Savannah. But rather than resting on the shoulders of Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, this second act would require a broader range of players – who would be required to bury dozens of hatchets.

And not in each other’s back.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, touched on the MARTA plan this week during a break at a conference he was hosting in Savannah. “It’s an interesting idea. I’m certainly open to hearing the case,” Ralston said.

Most importantly, the House speaker said he would want state lawmakers representing Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties – MARTA’s client territories – to come to a consensus before he would permit consideration by the broader Legislature.

The three counties would have to ask their voters for an additional, half-penny sales tax. The Legislature would need to extend the life of that tax to 42 years – to permit MARTA to float the bonds that would pay for the rail.

By putting the onus on locals, Ralston is requiring metro Atlanta to resolve the regional differences that deep-sixed the 2012 TSPLOST vote. Fulton County in particular would have to get past the Republican-Democrat enmity stirred up by the cityhood movement.

Mayor Reed and John Eaves, chairman of the Fulton County Commission, would occupy prime negotiating chairs on the southern end. In north Fulton, House Speaker pro tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, and state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, would be prominent members of any negotiating team.

In fact, Jones’s clout as the No. 2 leader in the House – and the ranking Atlanta suburbanite — could give her veto power over any deal. She declined comment for this column.

But Beach is a member of the swing-for-the-fences club. Re-branding MARTA in favor of a five-county ATL? That’s his idea. Over four decades, state government has yet to put a dime into MARTA. That would have to change if it assumes control of regional transit, Beach admitted. “The state has to have some skin in the game,” he said.

Beach has made several trips to Washington for conversations with federal transportation officials, who would be expected to match the $4 billion raised locally for the rail expansion. One of those trips was with Keith Parker, MARTA’s CEO and general manager – an echo of the Deal-Reed trips to D.C. for the Port of Savannah.

State Rep. Tom Taylor, R-Dunwoody, the newly appointed chairman of the Legislature’s MARTA oversight committee, is a regular MARTA rider and can see that the transit agency’s ridership is up – particularly along the north-south lines.

His committee is likely to hold the first hearings on it this fall. Taylor called MARTA’s proposal “ambitious.” But he said the agency should think about bus rapid transit up the Ga. 400 corridor, rather than heavy rail, which costs $100 million a mile.

Beach disagrees. For one thing, the Alpharetta senator said, the defeat of TSPLOST showed that voters aren’t likely to approve a new tax for only marginal improvements in their commutes. Something big is required, he said, to stir the imagination.

“I am a fan of rail coming up through north Fulton. And we’d love to have Cobb and Gwinnett, too,” he said.

Which brings up another item from the think-big crowd. It’s not just the laying down of rail, but where the rail goes. Beach and many others would like to see any transit legislation generated next year to include incentives to lure Cobb and Gwinnett counties into the fold.

Cobb’s antipathy to transit may put that county out of reach. But when asked to weigh in on MARTA’s plan to send rail up Ga. 400, Mayor Reed immediately shifted to the northeast.

“I think MARTA going to Gwinnett County when [Commission] Chairwoman [Charlotte] Nash and the leaders of Gwinnett County are ready would be a great thing to do,” the mayor of Atlanta said. “I think if you put MARTA on the ballot in Gwinnett in 2016, I think it would pass. North Fulton is going to have to embrace it as well.”

Some of this big-thinking may have to be restrained, at least in public, for the time being. Nash, just like her counterpart Tim Lee in Cobb, is up for re-election next year. And the eruption of transit talk in both venues could complicate their campaigns.

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