Let’s avoid a head-on collision between MARTA and roads by finding a compromise

By Maria Saporta

As Fulton County leaders weigh two different approaches to fund transportation, they may end up in a head-on collision where everyone loses.

Or, if the various parties can work out a compromise, everyone can win.

One approach is taking shape among Fulton County’s mayors and commissioners, who met on Monday and reached a consensus to go for a full-penny transportation, five-year sales tax in a referendum a year from now. That option almost is destined to be invested primarily in roads except in the City of Atlanta, which is trying to secure funding to expand the streetcar so it can connect and run along the Atlanta BeltLine.

MARTA expansion

Proposed MARTA expansions (Source: MARTA)

The second approach is one being proposed by MARTA. That plan is to go to voters in the City of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties and ask them to approve another half-penny for 40 years to expand rail and bus rapid transit in the region.

That option would extend MARTA rail to Alpharetta; build a light-rail line connecting the Lindbergh MARTA Station to the Avondale Station along the Clifton Corridor; extending the Atlanta Streetcar to the BeltLine; and developing a BRT line serving South DeKalb as well as extending the existing East Line along I-20.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who did not attend Monday’s meeting, said after the BeltLine quarterly meeting last week that it’s still too early to know the best approach.

Reed added that there’s a possibility Fulton County could go for a fraction of a penny – say a half penny, which would make it easier for MARTA to also ask for a half penny.

“There’s no hope of passing a penny and a half penny,” said Reed, who added that for him “any conversation around a penny has to involve consideration of the Atlanta BeltLine and that transportation mix.”

MARTA versus METRO

MARTA and Washington, D.C.’s METRO were funded at about the same time, but METRO has kept expanding (Source: MARTA)

Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves polled the nine mayors present at Monday’s meeting about their preferences. They all expressed the same sentiment – go for a full penny, even if that meant leaving MARTA out of the equation.

Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle acknowledged that MARTA’s expansion plans would serve his city but he was not sold that was the way to go.

If it comes to being able to use that half penny, the benefit to our city would be much better with it going to roads,” Belle Isle said. “I would much rather see these dollars spent on something we can see.”

Because the Fulton approach for a penny sales tax would only be for five years, that would make it nearly impossible to fund MARTA rail.

And the project lists being proposed by the various cities, with the exception of Atlanta, include primarily resurfacing of roads, improving bridges, building or widening roads and possibly adding sidewalks.

“We are going to go for a bond if this doesn’t work,” Belle Isle said about his project list – indicating that his city options to fund its transportation projects.

MARTA's half penny

MARTA’s half-penny argument (Source: Urban Land Institute – Atlanta)

Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker said it all comes down to voters being able to trust government. If the county passed a full penny and could show immediate improvement on traffic flows, then in five years voters might be more willing to support transit rather than roads.

Bodker added that North Fulton does not have enough density for heavy rail. Plus residents cities like Roswell and Alpharetta have little interest in transit-oriented developments and more densely-populated communities.

Marvin Arrington Jr. was even more blunt. MARTA’s expansion plans do not include his district in South Fulton.

Because “there’s no MARTA coming to South Fulton, I don’t want them to get half of the money.”

Eaves was more circumspect, saying in an interview after the meeting that he supports MARTA.

“We just haven’t figured out the MARTA piece yet,” Eaves said. “I believe the transit piece and MARTA can be dealt with by the City of Atlanta.”

But Eaves said he does not want Fulton County to ask for 75 percent of a penny, much less 50 percent to give MARTA a decent chance to ask voters for a half penny.

“I think we can find a balance,” Eaves said. “I’m just encouraged that the cities at least have some control over their projects. I have a very diverse jurisdiction that I oversee, and I’m trying to figure out the best path to get everyone on board.”

marta projects

Four different projects that the MARTA half-penny would fund (Source: MARTA)

“But advocates for MARTA are seeing the choices through a different lens.

Additional resources are needed to expand MARTA to its full potential, which the overwhelming number of Fulton and DeKalb voters have said they want,” said Robbie Ashe III, chairman of MARTA’s board. “We look forward to continuing to work with our jurisdictions (Fulton, DeKalb and Atlanta) to make that possible.”

Mark Toro, president and CEO of North American Properties, recently made an even stronger case for MARTA in a presentation to the Rotary Club of Atlanta.

“The economic health of our region depends on transit,” Toro said. “It’s not about our commute. It’s about our ability to compete.”

Toro then reeled off several companies that have decided to locate their operations near MARTA – NCR, the Pulte Group, State Farm, Mercedes-Benz, Veritiv and Kaiser Permanente.

“We can’t rest on our laurels,” Toro said. “God knows we can build roads. But it’s about the old economy versus new economy. Relocations are following transit and talent. ”

In many ways, we’re back to the tension that existed in 2012 when the region tried (and failed) to get voters to approve a T-SPLOST.

Fulton County offices

Fulton County offices in downtown Atlanta near the Five Points MARTA Station (Photo by Maria Saporta)

All sorts of arguments were made about why it lost, including: having too many projects on the list; people in the suburbs feeling that most the money was going to intown projects, such as the BeltLine; while people inside the inner city felt most of the money was going to the suburbs for more roads.

The T-SPLOST had an uphill battle from the beginning with the referendum being put on the ballot during a primary election rather than a general election when more people go to the polls.

Now everyone – from MARTA and Fulton County leaders – are eyeing to hold the referendum next November during the presidential election.

Matters are further complicated by the fact that the City of Atlanta is planning to hold a referendum for voters to approve a penny sales tax for another round of water and sewer investments.

And then the school systems in Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb are weighing another round to fund facility improvements for public education with another one-penny sales tax.

So how much in sales taxes will voters in Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb tolerate? And would they fund all of the above – a penny for transportation, a MARTA half-penny, a water-sewer penny and an education tax?

Wouldn’t it be sad if all these efforts were to cancel each other out?

For all of us to win, our leaders will have to come up with a way to support MARTA as well as a fractional sales tax for Fulton County and its cities.

Fulton County

Fulton County’s commissioners as well as the mayors of the cities in the county consider a sales tax to fund transportation. Fulton County plaque in front of one the county’s buildings. (Photo by Maria Saporta)

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.

9 replies
  1. MarvinArringtonJr says:

    I am supportive of marta mass transit the streetcar and the beltline. However hb 170 is only designed for 5 years as such it was not designed for marta. I am supportive of an additional half penny for Mata for a total penny and a half. We have serious traffic problems in our region and we will have to make serious investments to address our traffic. I also stated this at the meeting.. I too b believe their can be middle ground especially if time frame is expanded to 20 or 40 years as opposed to 5.Report

    Reply
  2. bcngator63 says:

    A better plan would be for Cobb, Douglas, Fayette, Gwinnett, Henry, and Rockdale to add a penny, Atlanta, DeKalb, and Fulton have carried the load by themselves long enough.Report

    Reply
  3. Noel M says:

    MarvinArringtonJr  Thank you for taking the time to clarify your thoughts on this matter in print. Mr. Arrington. As a current and lifelong resident of south Fulton – and a complete supporter of MARTA (I gave up my car 3 years ago and commute from College Park to midtown daily via MARTA), it is clear that we absolutely have to prioritize transit on our dashboard of transportation options. As mentioned in the article, it’s not just an issue of transit per se – it’s about access to jobs and quality of life. Please support any aspect of MARTA planning and funding that can benefit south Fulton.Report

    Reply
  4. yourkidding says:

    Marta does not practice diversity hiring, therefore supporting anything Marta wants is asking people who would never use Marta to support a policy that goes against our values as a community.Report

    Reply
  5. StevenBAdams says:

    Why aren’t they asking for 2 cents at 40 years to complete the entire projects… south fulton… south dekalb , street car and the clifton corrider… come on people we can pay 2 cents now or hundreds of dollars  later sitting grind lock giving that money to the oil.  Time waits for no man I have lived here for 25 years and all we do is talk,,talk talk.  Let’s do something NOW!!! FYI Cobb county is systematically taking all of Atlanta names revenues…MLB now  NLS.Report

    Reply
  6. PeggyPowellDobbins says:

    Atlanta boomed when people thought it was 1) the least racist city in the South and 2) a real city because it had a subway system. Other Southern cities are now less racist and have better mass transit. The fares are too high. The trains AND buses too infrequent. And who is going to say “enough with sales taxes”? It’s time for those who pocket the profit generated by their underpaid overworked employees AND the taxes they already pay to ante up. Vanity tax deductible “gifts” don’t count.Report

    Reply
  7. ScottNAtlanta says:

    Last I checked, there was a sizable chunk of my property tax bill that went to fund schools, and judging from the steep increase in the bills I pay for water/sewer, I fail to see why they need sales tax revenue as well.  MARTA=JOBS if our “leaders cant see that they need to be replaced.  Every major corporate relocation has done so at a MARTA rail station.  The Mayor of Alpharetta would do well to remember that, and if his area is so special…well, people might need to commute north, and driving as the only option would be a no go for many people.Report

    Reply

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