Fulton and DeKalb – seeking equity – could lose MARTA service

By Guest Columnist MICHAEL WALLS, an attorney who is a former MARTA board chairman and currently serves on the board.

We all know the story. MARTA was conceived as a five-county transit system but after the three suburban counties opted not to participate, it was developed as a two-county system for Fulton and DeKalb Counties.

For over 30 years those two counties have paid a one-percent sales tax that has been used to fund the construction and operation of MARTA. Not surprisingly, the fact that the three suburban counties chose not tax themselves to support the system has led to a certain amount of resentment among many in Fulton and DeKalb.

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Today, the region is at a critical juncture. Traffic is a mess, and MARTA is facing severe service cuts because the one-percent sales tax in Fulton and DeKalb is no longer sufficient to sustain the system.

This session, the General Assembly is considering several proposals for creating a regional taxing plan for transportation. While there are differences, all of the plans for the first time ever would allow a one percent sales tax within the metro region to support regional transit including MARTA.

In light of these proposals, the question of “equity” for Fulton and DeKalb has become a much talked about issue among residents and some elected officials and legislators from those jurisdictions.

According to some, because of past support for MARTA, any plan that requires additional taxes from those counties for support of MARTA and transit would be inequitable and therefore should be opposed.

The reality however is that a one percent regional sales tax that excludes Fulton and DeKalb counties will simply not generate sufficient funding to sustain MARTA as it currently exists much less to build and operate the additional transit needed to solve the region’s serious transportation problems.

As a longtime resident of the City of Atlanta and Fulton County, I certainly understand the feelings of those who are concerned that any plan for regional taxation be equitable toward Fulton and DeKalb counties. I believe however, that it is time to reconsider exactly what equity means.

It is true that the residents of Fulton and DeKalb have taxed themselves to support MARTA while other jurisdictions did not, but it is Fulton and DeKalb that have received, and continue to receive, the majority of the benefits MARTA brings.

Almost 90 percent of the nearly half million riders MARTA serves each day are from those counties. Nearly 50 percent of those riders are transit dependent, meaning that they would not be able to get to work, doctor’s appointments or wherever they need to go every day were it not for MARTA.

If an additional funding source is not forthcoming, MARTA will be forced to enact drastic service cuts. Such cuts will have serious adverse consequences for the economy and quality of life in Fulton and DeKalb counties.

It will be Fulton and DeKalb county employers who will be unable to depend on their employees getting to work; it will be out of town visitors bound for businesses and hotels in Fulton and DeKalb counties that will be affected by reduced service from the airport.

It will be residents of Fulton and DeKalb counties who will be most affected by increased traffic and air pollution.

MARTA matters to everyone living and doing business in Fulton and DeKalb counties and most especially to the 47 percent of our riders who are transit dependent. Not only are those riders totally dependent on MARTA but for 30 years, they have paid the one-percent sales tax as well as daily fares.

What could be more inequitable than allowing the rug to be jerked out from under them in the name of equity?

Although Michael Walls is still on the MARTA board, the views expressed herein are his personal views and do not purport to represent the view of the MARTA board.

8 replies
  1. Alan Thornton says:

    Mr. Walls is correct. That was then, this is now. Those of us who have lived in DeKalb (or Fulton) since before the arrival of MARTA know the great benefit it has been to our area. Let’s consider the money spent in the past to be in the past and move forward with the other counties to improve our area, the reach into other areas and our base of public transit riders.Report

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  2. Beth Gylys says:

    Michael Walls is the voice of reason amidst a choir of voices motivated by self-interest. Having viable mass transit in a major metropolitan area like Atlanta is a must, and Dekalb and Fulton counties do make up the area that falls inside the perimeter, the area that most benefits from Marta services. It makes sense that those of us who live inside these two counties continue to support our transit system monetarily.Report

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  3. Scott says:

    My only hope is that the tax the other counties will pay passes at all. Nobody that I know of would be so foolish as to cut off their nose to spite their face which is what we would be doing. We have to look forward not backwardsReport

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  4. Mason Hicks says:

    I too know no one that would cut their nose off to spite of his face, but I know OF many who have made the practice routine. Our Legislators have been cutting off our noses for years now. We have learned in the recent past, whether a referendum gets accepted by the voting public depends largely on how the referendom is worded, and by default, who actually authors it.Report

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  5. Sally Flocks says:

    I agree that the proposed one percent regional sales tax for transportation should not exclude Fulton and DeKalb counties. If these counties were excluded, it’s likely that none of the new transportation funds would be spent to address needs in these counties. As a result, MARTA bus service would continue to decline, and the counties would continue to lack funding needed to pay for light rail or streetcars serving Emory University, the BeltLine or downtown Atlanta.

    To ensure the new funds are spent equitably and effectively, representation on the agency charged with programming funds should be weighted to favor jurisdictions with the highest residential populations, daytime populations, and sales tax contributions. The last thing the region needs is a decision-making agency that resembles Georgia’s county-unit system.Report

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  6. Yr1215 says:

    I agree Fulton & Dekalb shouldn’t be excluded. However, one does have to consider the fact that Atlanta will then have one of the highest tax rates in the country. Although there are some more major cities with higher sales taxes, they are few and far larger cities. And among other southern cities, Atlanta’s will be the highest. This obviously impacts the ability to attract business, jobs, etc.

    I don’t have a solution, but the people who run this city better think long and hard about it.Report

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  7. Clara Axam says:

    Thank you Michael Walls for providing a focus and perspective on a tough issue. Viscerally, the temptation for those of us who reside in Fulton and/or Dekalb is to be reactive to the notion of an additional tax for Fulton and Dekalb when we have been carrying the system on our backs for so long and the economy is so tough. Like many, I want to stomp my feet, shake my head and say “enough is enough, we have paid our fair share.”

    But you make a good point. Thank goodness we chose to build and support MARTA! We have had benefit of the system for the penny we already exact. Fulton and Dekalb residents have been well served even as the region has benefited from our vision and our financial commitment to mass transit. There is no denying that the economic growth of Fulton and Dekalb would have been quite different without MARTA.

    As we work through the tough issues, we must keep our eye on the larger vision. In short, regional — indeed state funding — is not a “want to have.” It is a “must have” that is essential for our economic and environmental health. We must have state funding for the continuation of the MARTA service and for the support of expansion to a regional system that prevents gridlock, and keeps our employees employed, our seniors mobile and our tourists returning again and again. The goal is bigger than our history and essential to our future. Mass transit connectivity across the region and the state is critical to the future of Georgia. In my opinion, we have not yet grasped that this is no longer an Atlanta, Fulton or Dekalb issue. It is a Georgia issue.

    Our peer cities get it. Charlotte, Denver, San Antonio, Portland are on the move. Right now, we are inhaling their dust. We are losing our edge.

    There are indeed tough issues and tough conversations on the horizon. I hope as we engage them we remember that it will not be the first time that we have been visionary when those around us have been skeptical. Remember? We built an airport with no orginating or destination flights. We built it on our dime, but it is now the busiest airport in the WORLD and an economic generator for the the state. We must think big and well beyond our respective boundaries.Report

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  8. Yr1215 says:

    I don’t disagree with Ms. Axam’s comments. However, I shudder to think our competition, Charlotte-Denver-San Antonio-Portland are cities 1/5 our size. This probably says two things. One, it is depressing cities 1/5 our size are making more headway than we are. And two, that Atlanta’s perception of its ability to grow, improve, and expand has fallen so far that we no longer consider ourselves in the league of cities our size like Dallas, DC, Houston, or Miami. Sad indeed.Report

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