MARTA expansion backers promise transparency, public discussions

City officials, transit activists and BeltLine backers in Midtown Thursday night said they can all agree on one thing—they can’t make the same mistakes as last time.

In 2012 the metro area voted no on a new regional sales tax that would have provided $7.2 billion over 10 years to address transportation needs from roads to transit.

On Nov. 8 citizens of Atlanta will vote again on transit expansion. At a public discussion held by pro-transit group the MARTA Army, City Councilman Kwanza Hall said, officials still use 2012 as a lesson.

“There’s a lot to be learned,” Hall said. “And of course it was bigger than the city of Atlanta, and the city did pass, barely. But I think we’re in a different place in the conversation and different in a lot of ways than we were back then.”

Public education and discussion before the vote are critical, said Ben Limmer, MARTA’s assistant general manager. He said those were some of the biggest missing pieces prior to the 2012 vote.

“We need the public process,” Limmer said. “We have to listen. We have to make sure that the process is transparent and the project list reflects what the public wants.”

One issue on the Nov. 8 referendum is raising the sales tax by a half-penny for 40 years, generating about $2.5 billion exclusively for MARTA expansion within the city. City Council approved the referendum in June after MARTA submitted a menu of projects ranging from more buses to light rail.

A second issue, which is still awaiting City Council approval, is a TSPLOST specifically for the BeltLine. This tax would be up to a half-penny for five years, generating a maximum of $340 million.

Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, director of the city’s Office of Sustainability, expects a decision by July 18 on whether BeltLine projects will appear on the ballot.

Limmer said looking forward to this vote, he’s “reluctant to say [he’s] wildly optimistic about it.” While nothing’s guaranteed, he said, based on how the city voted last time he feels pretty good about where citizens stand on transit.

One topic panelists discussed is light rail, a similar technology to Atlanta’s streetcar.

With light rail making up a large part of MARTA’s project proposal, if MARTA’s vote passes there’s a possibility this will become a big part of Atlanta transit riders’ future.

But Atlanta’s streetcar has had its problems, from low ridership to GDOT threatening to seize control of the project, which is operated jointly by MARTA and the city.

That joint arrangement has been widely blamed for many of the problems the Atlanta Streetcar has encountered. Councilman Hall said if voters want to expand light rail, MARTA needs to take the lead on it because right now having two entities involved is inhibiting progress.

What’s more, he said it hasn’t had strong support from people who don’t like how it looks or how it worked with traffic or with MARTA.

“I think the streetcar is considered maybe the bastard child by MARTA folks,” Hall said.

But he said it’s just the beginning. Hall said other cities have proven this is a viable option, but there needs to be one group running it to create a comprehensive, integrated plan.

As panelists stressed in the beginning, they want the public to tell them which projects are more important. That means more education, outreach and discussion to show not just what the projects are, but what they’ll cost, Limmer said.

Hall said City Council is still discussing these issues, but he’s not aware of an official campaign for community engagement yet.

But every panelist agreed that the best way for the public to get educated is for citizens to become spokespeople. This campaign is not going to consist of automated calls, said Dwayne Peterson, a committee member of the Partnership for Southern Equity, which advocates for equitable transportation.

“It’s conversation over pound cakes, not faxes and emails,” Patterson said.