Fulton County mayors seeking consensus for transit plans

By Maria Saporta

The Fulton County Commission and mayors within the county are considering asking voters for a .2 percent sales tax for transit projects either this November or in 2020.

The 0.2 percent sales tax is expected to generate about $1.2 billion over 30 years.

The county commissioners, the mayors and key transportation officials met Friday morning to present plans for a bus rapid transit (BRT) projects that would travel up the Georgia 400 corridor along managed and express lanes. They also briefly spoke about an east-west transit connector along the northern portion of I-285 as well as transit along the South Fulton Parkway.

buses and trains

Buses and trains pull into the North Springs MARTA Station (Special: MARTA)

But there was considerable pushback from the mayors and commissioners from the southern end of the county, who felt their constituency was being left behind.

Commissioner Marvin Arrington expressed concern that 90 percent of the presentation was focused on Georgia 400.

“We are going to be challenged to get 70 percent of the vote when we make presentations that is 90 percent about North Fulton,” said Arrington, who was noticed that two South Fulton projects had been scratched off the original list. “Where there was equity, now there is none. It’s got to be distributed throughout the county.”

Union City Mayor Vince Williams agreed.

“The only way we can do this is to make sure that we have something we can take to our citizens,” Williams said. “To get 100 percent buy-in, the Southside has got to have something to take back to voters.”

It’s been more than a year since the mayors have gotten together with the Fulton Commission to discuss plans for transit. Not only are there a couple of new mayors on board, there also has been a change in transit governance in the region.

During the last legislative session, House Bill 930 passed creating “The ATL” – a new regional transit agency.

HB 930 also included several restrictions in Fulton County, such as limiting how much it can ask for to .2 percent sales tax. And none of the revenue generated can go towards heavy rail.

That has killed any prospect of expanding a seamless system of MARTA rail up the Georgia 400 corridor towards Alpharetta.

Instead, the Georgia Department of Transportation is focused on building a much wider Georgia 400 with all kind of managed and express lanes with separate entrances and exits along the corridor. It would involve several new overpasses to accommodate the wider right-of-way. It also called for several BRT stations to be placed in the center of the highway, but there was little discussion of how people could actually get to those stations to get on the buses.

Dick Anderson, manager of Fulton County, said the mayors and the commissioners will reconvene in May to re-evaluate their plans and to decide when to put together a referendum for the voters.

By that time, Gwinnett voters will have decided whether to join MARTA. Gwinnett’s referendum will be on March 19, and it calls for expanding MARTA’s heavy rail line from Doraville into Gwinnett. It also is calling for expanded bus service, including BRT.

“The elephant in the room is what’s going to happen in Gwinnett,” Commissioner Liz Hausman said. If it fails, Fulton may have to step back its plans.

The pushback among mayors was not limited to those on the southern end.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said he would have a hard time getting support for the proposal unless the I-285 east-west corridor was more prominent. He said the plans for BRT along Georgia 400 would not directly offer any new transit services for Sandy Springs.

Paul also said he doesn’t believe they will be able to put together a referendum in time for a November vote, and he added that going for a March 2019 vote “will be tough.”

The city of Atlanta has not been part of the Fulton County discussions, because it already has successfully passed a .5 percent sales tax for “More MARTA” projects within the city limits.

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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