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.

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.

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