By Maria Saporta
In November, voters in the City of Atlanta likely will get an opportunity to increase their investment in MARTA by a half-penny sales tax for 40 years – adding to the penny it passed in 1971.
At the same time, the rest of Fulton County likely will get to vote for .75 of a penny for transportation projects – most going to roads – for the next five years.
And what will we get? Micro-regionalism.
While it is good MARTA may soon be getting new revenue and expansion opportunities, let’s not fool ourselves. This is not moving us closer to a regional transit system.
What we are seeing is a “regional” transportation system being planned by micro municipalities.
The cities of Alpharetta and Johns Creek, which have populations of 63,000 and 83,000 respectively, are reluctant to support expanding MARTA rail up Georgia 400 to their cities. But consider this: the 10-county metro Atlanta area has a population of more than 4.3 million people, and the mayors of two North Fulton cities are putting on their brakes on a plan that should be serving the entire metro area.
Meanwhile, the City of Atlanta is the largest city in the region and the state with more than 425,000 residents. And all polling shows it is the most transit-friendly part of the region.
If Fulton County really wanted to increase its investment in MARTA, it would want City of Atlanta voters be part of that referendum.
Because the non-Atlanta portion of Fulton County is not jumping on the MARTA train at this time, it may hurt its chances of passing an additional MARTA tax at a later time. The rest of Fulton County could vote for .25 of a penny for MARTA in 2017, and that could possibly be increased to half penny in five years.
MARTA did have an ambitious $8 billion plan to expand the transit system in Fulton and DeKalb counties, but it had hoped to have a half-penny sales tax from those jurisdictions. Now it is having to take an incremental approach towards expansion.
And there are a lot of unknowns with that approach – if and when those voters will have an opportunity to vote for MARTA.
So what is known?
The City of Atlanta will have a huge competitive advantage when it comes to transit in the Atlanta region.
Already, the biggest economic development projects are gravitating to MARTA stations. Companies want to locate in communities where millennials and the creative class want to be. And they prefer living in walkable urban areas served by transit.
Now it will be up to MARTA and the Atlanta community to come up with the best transit plan to serve the city’s residents.
Because MARTA’s expansion plan only included partial projects in the City of Atlanta, Mayor Kasim Reed has let it be known that the he would like to see the new MARTA revenues help expand the City’s streetcar system and BeltLine transit.
To have a successful outcome, it is essential for there to be a community-backed plan that works for both the city and the transit agency.
“The funds go to MARTA,” said Keith Parker, MARTA’s general manager and CEO.
When asked about who would be coming up with the project list, Parker said: “We have got smart people at the table discussing how we build a transportation system. We have a nice dose of projects that are complementary. This is an exciting opportunity.”
Ideally, Atlanta would take a methodical approach in deciding its transit priorities.
Should we extend the Atlanta Streetcar to the BeltLine?
Should we invest in a streetcar along the BeltLine corridor?
Should we build the Peachtree Streetcar?
Should we build a rail connection to Turner Field, Zoo Atlanta and the Lakewood Amphitheater?
What are the best corridors to connect the east side and the west side of the city?
Should we build a portion of the Clifton Corridor rail line hoping DeKalb County will support its portion?
Should we improve the MARTA stations in the city – most notably the Five Points MARTA station?
How should we select our highest priority projects? Should they be based on highest potential ridership, greatest economic development opportunities, providing equitable investment in our region?
No matter what, the hurdles we faced with the Atlanta Streetcar should be addressed head on. We need to make sure MARTA has the expertise to design, build and operate a light rail or streetcar system.
Atlanta has a wonderful opportunity to lead the region by showing how to seize the future. It can become the model for the rest of the region. As Atlanta proves that transit is giving it a competitive edge, the rest of the region will find out the hard way that it’s a day late and a dollar short – and forced to play catch up.
During last year’s LINK trip to Toronto, metro Atlanta leaders heard the term: “relentless incrementalism.” That term seems to fit this approach to transit expansion.
But the term “micro-regionalism” is more descriptive to the path the Atlanta region is taking.
Next week: Should Atlanta ask voters to approve both a 50-cent MARTA sales tax increase and a 50-cent transportation sales tax?