Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed favors half-cent sales tax for MARTA

By Maria Saporta

Up until now, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has been absent from the debate among Fulton County’s mayors on whether they should seek a full-penny, five-year transportation sales tax.

If the county were to go for a full penny, it basically would preclude MARTA from being able to seek an additional half-penny sales tax in Fulton and DeKalb counties so it can expand its transit system.

The state legislature has capped Fulton County’s sales tax rate to 8 cents – a penny more than the current sales tax.

At a meeting on Monday of the Fulton County Commission, most of the county’s mayors and MARTA officials, opinions were all over the map.

Roswell Mayor Jere Wood argued for the county and its cities to on a half-penny for transportation, thereby giving MARTA the opportunity to go after a half-penny.

Roswell Mayor Jere Wood

Roswell Mayor Jere Wood at Monday’s meeting of Fulton County’s mayors and commissioners (Photos by Maria Saporta)

Fulton Commission Chairman John Eaves seemed to favor the county going for three-quarters of a penny allowing MARTA to ask for a quarter-penny.

Other mayors – notably Mike Bodker of John’s Creek – favored a full penny for the county and having MARTA wait for another day. The cities would have to be unanimous in going for a full penny.

At one point, Bodker said: “It’s difficult to have a discussion when you don’t have a 50 percent member.”

Bodker was referring to the absence of Atlanta’s Mayor Reed, who represents nearly 50 percent of the county’s population.

On Wednesday morning after his quarterly meeting with the Atlanta Committee for Progress, Mayor Reed said he stayed away from the Fulton County meeting on purpose.

“I stayed away from the conversation intentionally,” he said, adding that his staff had kept him informed about what was being discussed at the meetings. “I thought it would be more productive if I stayed away.”

But then Reed finally disclosed his opinion, which is expected to hold a great deal of sway given that he represents the largest city in the county.

John's Creek Mayor Mike Bodker

John’s Creek Mayor Mike Bodker at the Fulton County meeting

“I think the general direction around the city pursuing a half-cent sales tax is a good direction, which would leave MARTA with the ability to pursue a half-cent sales tax,” Reed said, adding that his decision was “fresh as of yesterday.”

MARTA Chairman Robbie Ashe has said that the transit agency would seek a half-penny that would be in place for 40 years – giving it the ability to issue long-term bonds to expand the bus and rail system.

During the Fulton County meeting, Ashe said the additional half-penny tax would allow MARTA to extend its rail line to Alpharetta, to build a light rail system along the Clifton Corridor and to expand mass transit along I-20 to serve South DeKalb.

Ashe said they likely would have additional dollars to invest in a couple of other expansion projects, but he added that the transit agency hasn’t identified what they would be.

Currently, MARTA’s primary source of revenue is a penny sales tax that has been charged in Fulton and DeKalb counties since 1971 and Clayton County since earlier this year.

During the meeting, mayors from South Fulton said they were supportive of additional investment in MARTA as long as their part of the county would benefit from the expansion plans.

While no promises were made, MARTA CEO Keith Parker and Ashe said they would review possible expansion projects.

Fulton County mayors

Fulton County’s mayors share their thoughts about a possible transportation sales tax at meeting on Monday

Although MARTA officials told Eaves they were willing to explore what a quarter-penny tax would fund, it was clear the transit agency favored going for a half-penny.

“My understanding is that there’s a large demand for transit,” Ashe said, “and a half-penny funds more than quarter-penny.”

Colleen Kiernan, director of the Sierra Club’s Georgia Chapter, made sure her feelings were known.

“Anything less than a half-cent for MARTA is a non-starter for us,” she said.

Mayor Reed, who has made transit serving the Atlanta BeltLine a priority, said that was one reason he favored the MARTA half-cent option.

“I think funding for the BeltLine would have the better opportunity in the MARTA plan,” Reed said because the sales tax would have a longer time horizon. “That would probably be a better fit under a 40-year scenario.”

Now that he’s made his decision, Reed said he would be taking a more visible role in the discussion.

As Reed said Wednesday morning: “I plan to actually engage and start doing work on this issue.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

9 replies
  1. NI Downtown says:

    Does this mean Fulton County and/or City of Atlanta would lobby the state legislature to extend the full penny for 40 years, 1/2 cent reserved for MARTA for 40 years and a 1/2 cent for the cities for 40 years? Seems like the only way to build out the Atlanta Streetcar Network including the Beltline Trail/Transit components  would be if the 1/2 cent for cities had a forty year horizon, instead of the currently allowed 5 year horizon.Report

    Reply
  2. Michael Hoover says:

    Given the complete failure of the Streetcar fiasco, I am would be extremely reluctant to trust these guys with anymore taxpayer money. We are overtaxed for poor quality services as it is…Report

    Reply
  3. Floyd Taylor says:

    Fulton and DeKalb Counties have been paying a 1% MARTA tax for years intended to be the tax to build the system not maintenance.  We have always paid a disproportional amount for MARTA. MARTA doesn’t even serve ANYWHERE in my neighborhood — Peachtree Hills. The Ivory Tower – MARTA Headquarters is packed with rich managers and leaders, yet we can’t get the urine out of the elevators, the bathrooms remain closed (so I don’t blame the riders for urinating in any place they can find). Most stations have absolutely NO security.  And now the board just unanimously voted for their “buddies” ex-board members to be given the lucrative contract forcing us Taxpayers to pay for their totally Private operation which has taken over MARTA Mobility.  This conflict of interests should cause the board members to be denied their private contract.  
    So NO, on any forced taxpayer funding, UNTIL MARTA cleans up its act – at Board Level and Urine level and starts providing officers in the station and starts providing service to my Buckhead Neighborhood of Peachtree Hills.Report

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  4. Peachtree Hills Resident says:

    Floyd Taylor As a Peachtree Hills resident, you’re assertion that there is no MARTA service in the area is an outright lie. The Lindbergh MARTA station is right next door to the neighborhood and is no more than a 20 minute walk. Also, the 110 bus runs right down Peachtree and stops at Terrace Drive and Peachtree Hills Avenue.Report

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  5. ACW15 says:

    Why do we keep funding transportation initiatives with regressive sales taxes that disproportionally affect the poor? I’m all for paying taxes to improve mass transit but it needs to be through a progressive tax mechanism like income or property tax.
    Also, any new light or heavy rail needs to be on dedicated right of way. MARTA heavy rail works great because it uses dedicated rail while the Atlanta Streetcar is a more of a novelty than a solution because it only moves as fast as traffic.Report

    Reply
  6. James_Reese_Jr says:

    I’m all for the one-cents split with MARTA. As a resident of unincorporated South Fulton all I ask is that we get some type of express services for our end of the county. Maria what does the 1/2 cent generate per year for each municipality? Any word on that yet.Report

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