By Maria Saporta
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and key members of the business community favor asking voters for a full penny sales tax for transportation later this year – a half-penny going to MARTA and another half-penny going toward other transportation projects.
The MARTA half-penny would last 40 years and would go toward expanding MARTA in the City of Atlanta. That MARTA list of projects will need to be decided by the end of June.
The second half-penny would be a five-year transportation sales tax that could be spent on a variety of projects, but that list is more flexible.
The city has been weighing whether to go for a quarter penny or a half penny for transportation, and the mayor’s comments Friday a clear preference to go for a full penny sales tax, which would increase Atlanta’s sales tax to 9 percent.
“The consensus seemed to be that we should be at a penny,” Reed said in an exclusive interview after the quarterly meeting of the Atlanta Committee for Progress on Friday morning. “It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity. I’m leaning toward a full penny with clearly established oversight from the business community.”
Paul Bowers, chairman of ACP, agreed.
“Let’s go ahead and get as much done for the city now,” Bowers said. “Let’s show what we can do.”
When asked about the priorities for both project lists, Reed said he definitely wants to extend the Atlanta Streetcar to the BeltLine. MARTA will receive its half-penny sales tax, and its list of projects includes expansion of the streetcar, bus improvements and plans for light-rail.
The Atlanta BeltLine has said the transportation half-penny could complete the land acquisition and the development of the 22-mile trail corridor around the city. But there is not universal agreement about how much of those dollars should go to the BeltLine – a question the mayor also answered on Friday.
“The half-penny will not be 100 percent BeltLine,” Reed stated. “It’s not the right thing to do, and I don’t think it’s politically achievable.”
The mayor was asked about the political support related to the Atlanta Streetcar, which has been beset by numerous operations and governance issues.
“Within the city, the streetcar still has a favorable rating – 52 percent to 48 percent,” Reed said.
Earlier this week, members of the Transportation Committee of the Atlanta City Council seemed to favor that MARTA take over the operation of the Atlanta Streetcar. City Councilman Kwanza Hall said it would make sense for the streetcar to be run by “the great leadership team” at MARTA. Currently MARTA has an oversight role when it comes to the Atlanta Streetcar.
Councilwoman Felicia Moore pressed MARTA CEO Keith Parker, who was at the Wednesday meeting, about MARTA possibly operating the streetcar.
“Would that be something MARTA would be interested in doing?” she asked.
“We will help in any way we can,” Parker answered, adding that giving MARTA “a more vigorous role” would have to be approved by the Federal Transit Administration and the Georgia Department of Transportation. “That is certainly something that we would entertain.”
Moore then asked Dan Gordon, the city’s chief operating officer, whether MARTA could takeover the streetcar operations.
“We are happy to take it under advisement,” Gordon said. “It’s an option.”
On Friday, Mayor Reed said the current operator – Transdev – is the leading provider of transit operations. But he added that he would be willing to consider other ideas.
“We are completely open to a partnership with MARTA. The streetcar is going to be part of our future – extending it to the BeltLine,” Reed said. “ACP and my office are focused on excellence. I’m not confined to a narrow, territorial point of view. It’s performing better and better.”
Those questions can be discussed “once we finish our process with the state,” Reed said. The Georgia DOT has given the city a deadline to address operational and safety issues – with a possible outcome that the state could shut the system down.