Regional transportation sales tax doomed to fail in 2012 if MARTA issue isn’t addressed

WARNING: To people who want voters to pass the regional transportation sales tax: Fix the inequities towards MARTA.

A regional sales tax will not pass without enthusiastic support from people living in the City of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties. But if the language now included in House Bill 277 is not changed, residents in the MARTA counties will realize that the regional sales tax is not in their best interest.

For nearly 40 years, people living in Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb have been investing billions of dollars in a one-cent sales tax to establish the MARTA bus and rail system — the back bone of all transit services in the region.

HB 277 does call for an additional penny sales transportation tax for the 10-county region (of which as little as 15 percent or as much as 60 percent would go towards transit).

But, and this is a BIG but, the revenue from a new sales tax could not go towards the operation and maintenance of MARTA’s current transit system. MARTA is the only transit agency in the state (of more than 130 different transit providers) with that kind of restriction.

And MARTA is by far the largest transit agency in Georgia — one that serves the heart of the Atlanta region and the entire state. But yet it is singled out by state legislators who put a clause in HB 277 prohibiting any of the new sales tax revenue to go toward supporting the existing MARTA system.

As most people who live and work in Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb realize, MARTA has been having to cut back its services because of operating shortfalls. Although HB 277 revenues could go for new MARTA capital projects, the transit agency can’t expand if it can’t even sustain its current system.

Now consider the political implications.

The Livable Communities Coalition this past week released its survey results of how voters in the region view the proposed one-cent sales tax.

The bottom line is that the tax will not pass without strong support in the core MARTA counties. It also is clear that voters believe the dollars should go towards maintaining the current system.

Let me break it down for you.

In the 10-county region, 33 percent of surveyed likely voters said they definitely would support a sales tax; 15 percent said probably would vote yes; and 5 percent said they were undecided but leaning yes. That would total 53 percent likely in favor of the tax.

By comparison, 30 percent were a definite no, 9 percent were a probably no; and 4 percent were undecided by leaning no. That totaled 43 percent. The remaining 4 percent didn’t know how they would vote.

But when one zones in on where support for a regional transportation sales tax is strongest, it is in Fulton and DeKalb — where support was 63 percent to 32 percent. Remember that nearly half of the region’s population (two out of every five residents) live in Fulton and DeKalb.

The other eight counties in the region were 51 percent against the tax and only 46 percent in favor.

In Fulton and DeKalb, the survey showed that 75 percent supported keeping public transportation affordable to all users and 69 percent said it was important that the funding went to maintaining and improving MARTA bus and rail service.

Interestingly, voters throughout the region were supportive of non-road transportation projects — transit, bike lanes and sidewalks. In all, 63 percent of respondents said that at least half of the sales tax revenue should go towards alternative modes of transportation.

Also, 72 percent agreed with this statement: roads alone can’t solve the region’s transportation issues.

Two other factors to consider: People making less that $60,000 a year were far more supportive of the tax (62 percent) than those making more than 60,000 (36 percent). Plus, 79 percent of African-Americans and 74 percent of other non-whites were in favor of the tax while whites were 53 to 45 percent against.

All the results of the survey reinforce the fact that the bill will NOT pass without strong support in Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb.

But if those intown voters realize that the bill is punitive against MARTA — a system that they’ve been supporting on their own for four decades — that support will (and should) evaporate.

(The proposed draft criteria for the bill also stipulates that the sales tax revenue must support projects that serve at least two counties, which means two proposed new Atlanta transit systems — the streetcar and the Beltline — could not receive funding).

So the bottom line is that as it now stands, the danger of HB 277 is that the bill could mean that intown residents would be subsidizing road projects in suburban parts of the region rather than getting funding for transit projects in Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb.

And consider this, about half of the sales tax expected to be collected in the region will come from those two core counties.

This past week, the Georgia Department of Transportation held a “Transit Day” at its headquarters with a panel of local and state experts.

On the panel was Georgia Rep. Donna Sheldon (R-Dacula in Gwinnett County). Sheldon has just been named chair of the state legislature’s Transit Governance Committee.

After the session, I asked Sheldon if she felt HB 277 could be amended to remove the punitive measures toward MARTA.

“I don’t think we will,” Sheldon said. “It was tough to get it passed the way it was.”

But getting the bill passed through the legislature is one challenge. Getting the sales tax approved by voters is a whole other challenge.

As MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott said after the panel discussion, without solid support in Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb, the new sales tax “is not happening, it won’t pass.”

So for all those folks who have been working tirelessly for years to get new transportation funding in the region, BEWARE.

The one-cent sales tax will not pass until MARTA is treated fairly — at least on par with every other transit system in the state.

And it won’t pass unless voters in Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb are convinced the region’s core will gets its fair share.

So fix it.

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10 comments
tom watson
tom watson

The "kill MARTA" clause in order to replace it with something regional?

I would like to think our politicians are that clever or far-sighted. Some are, sure, but IMHO that clause was inserted by legislators who, for whatever reason, are dead-set against MARTA. Some seem to be Atlanta or MARTA haters; some allege MARTA's badly managed.

For example, one legislator told me that MARTA's already got everything, software, installed equipment etc, to implement distance-based fares. He said he's not doing a thing for MARTA until they flip that switch. Now, I don't know if MARTA really is at that point. If it is, fine, I accept his objection. If it's not, well, there's someone important with bad info.

Anyway, Maria, thanks for this analysis.

Mike
Mike

Maria, thanks for the response. I truly do feel that the clever politicians inserted this as a "kill MARTA" clause. So, either MARTA goes or our hopes for transit funding in the region die. Going along with the other Mike's comment, I definitely feel that a regional rebranding is needed for many reasons. My personal suggestio is to call it ARTSY (Atlanta Regional Transit SYstem). Theme the whole thing around the arts and draw from the creativity of the region to style the buses, trains, stations, etc. Unlikely I know....

Mason Hicks
Mason Hicks

I thought that was in fact what Roy Barnes intended GRTA to become. Instead, it was turned into a major disappointment.

Mike
Mike

Maria,

I have also wondered if the clause was added to "kill" MARTA as we know it in order to create a new true regional transit system. Sometimes I also wonder how that might not be such a bad thing. MARTA (the name) has such a negative reputation here, whether MARTA deserves it or not. No matter what MARTA does, it will never change the perceptions most in the area have of it. If they can create a new agency that truly is regional and re-brand MARTA to the new agency, maybe people will support expansion of the system. It seems to me that people in the metro are more supportive of transit, but they don't support MARTA. Maybe getting rid of the MARTA "brand" would help... Thoughts?

Maria Saporta
Maria Saporta

Mike,
Another thought. I have wondered whether the discriminatory clause was added to force the demise of MARTA so as to create a region wide authority.
In my cynical moments, I've also wondered whether the clause was added intentionally to make it nearly impossible for the transportation sales tax to pass in the Atlanta region.
I hope that was not the intent or motivation.
Maria

Maria Saporta
Maria Saporta

Mike,
That is a key question, and I haven't gotten a straight answer. Conceivably, a new regional agency would not be saddled with all the current MARTA restrictions. But I've also heard that it will be extremely complicated, if not nearly impossible, to reconfigure all the legal contracts In MARTA's 40-year history to a new agency. Beverly Scott said the new governance structure would need to be in place by next year.
If anyone has any insights on this issue, please share.
Maria

Mike
Mike

Maria,

Informative as always. Question, what would happen if MARTA were completely scrapped and rolled up into a truly regional system? Woould that get around the funding restrictions?

Scott
Scott

The other thing that REALLY bothers me is that as stated Dekalb, Fulton, and City of Atlanta have funded MARTA for its entire like with a 1 cent sales tax, yet we have to now add ANOTHER 1 cent if this passes. Basically the surrounding counties will get a free ride on the backs of those who paid for it without even being asked to start contributing. Thats where I jump off the bandwagon and wont support it as is. Maria is right. As written its just another way for Atlanta and MARTA to get screwed yet again

Engineer
Engineer

The problem with the regional approach is that voters will never support projects that benefit the state & other regions but not themselves. Say goodbye to Managed Lanes up 400 & 75 and Commuter Rail to Macon and Athens.

Here's what will happen: the outlying counties will all support it. Cherokee, Clayton, Douglas, Fayette, Henry and Rockdale. The only way regional transit is funded is if Fulton, Dekalb and City of Atlanta draw the line in the sand and demand it. Cobb & Gwinnett will be the wild cards, since they already have their own county SPLOST's for transportation. Their voters might fund one at the expense of the other.

Mike
Mike

I want someone to ask these people WHY they continue to put restrictions on MARTA? I would really like to know their reasoning behind it.