By Maria Saporta
More MARTA started out as a vehicle to bring more transit to the City of Atlanta.
Now it’s turning into a cry for More MARTA in metro Atlanta.
Although the More MARTA $11.5 billion project list was tied to voters in the City of Atlanta passing an additional half-penny MARTA sales tax to be invested within the city, the last two MARTA board meetings were filled with people who wanted “More MARTA” in their jurisdictions.
MARTA board Chairman Robbie Ashe described the significance of the moment – noting that not so long ago, communities were fighting to keep MARTA out of their areas.
“Now the fight is: ‘Why is transit not in my area?’” Ashe said. “The good news of where we are as a region is we want more transit. It will take time, and it will take money.”
And the City of Atlanta also wants more than the $2.7 billion the additional half-penny sales tax is expected to generate over the next 40 years.
“This is an important day for the City of Atlanta,” said Ashe, who became emotional when talking about the eight-year journey it took to get MARTA to where it is today. Ashe then credited former MARTA general manager Beverly Scott for hiring a consulting firm to do a MARTA audit and her successor – Keith Parker – reversing the transit agencies financial challenges by adding to its reserves, operating in the black and not raising fares.
“It’s not the end of the discussion,” Ashe said. “Atlanta is very thirsty for More MARTA. We recognize there are a whole lot of unmet needs. This is a piece of a much larger conversation.”
Although $2.7 billion sounds like a lot of money, it falls short of the desires of people living in the City of Atlanta. As passed by the MARTA board on Oct. 4, the plan calls for the building of 22 miles of Light Rail Transit (LRT), 14 miles of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and 26 miles of Arterial Rapid Transit (ART).
It would invest $570 million in transit along the Atlanta BeltLine; $350 million for the Clifton Corridor line; $600 million for transit in Southeast and Southwest Atlanta – primarily for light rail along Campbellton Road; $553 million to extend the Atlanta Streetcar and connect it to the Atlanta BeltLine and the Eastside and Westside trails; $200 million for station enhancements; and $238 million to improve the bus system.
But if more money could be invested within the city limits, some of the BRT lines could be converted to rail and some of the more frequent bus service known as ART could become BRT.
Currently, people paying sales taxes in the City of Atlanta are investing more in MARTA than any other jurisdiction, and that still isn’t enough to quench the thirst people have for transit.
It’s no wonder that residents in DeKalb County – especially South DeKalb, are frustrated that they still don’t have a MARTA rail line extending along the I-20 corridor. Residents feel as though they have been shortchanged by MARTA despite having paid the penny sales tax since the early 1970s.
Jeff Parker, MARTA’s general manager and CEO, clearly heard that frustration.
“We as an agency recognize there’s a huge desire for transit in DeKalb County,” Parker said.
Until Clayton County opted into the MARTA system in 2014, the sales tax collected in Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties went into one big pot. Clayton helped set a precedent that the money generated by its penny sales tax would be invested in the county.
The agreement with Gwinnett makes that relationship even more explicit. (Gwinnett voters will have an opportunity to join the MARTA system during a special election on March 19). The money generated by a Gwinnett penny sales tax will be invested primarily in Gwinnett County (although a significant portion will be allocated to MARTA being able to maintain a “state-of-good repair” of its existing system).
That’s why the stage is being set for DeKalb to up its MARTA ante by another half-penny so it can get the additional transit service it desperately wants. DeKalb County currently is conducting an analysis of its transit priorities – which could be a South DeKalb rail line or a Clifton Corridor rail line connecting MARTA’s Lindbergh Station with its Avondale station.
North Fulton, South Fulton and Cobb County are lagging behind – slow to jump on the MARTA expansion train. But it’s only a matter of time before those areas welcome increased investment in transit. The longer it takes for them to come on board, the more they will fall behind other parts of the region that are willing to provide alternative modes of transportation.
But the greatest shortfall related to transit is happening at the state level.
MARTA remains the largest transit system in the United States to receive little to no operating support from its home state.
Imagine how much farther we would be if the State of Georgia had been a full partner in MARTA and transit throughout the state.
“If new pots of money become available, we obviously would pursue it,” Ashe said when asked about possible state funding.
It has been encouraging to have Gov. Nathan Deal recognize the state has a role in transit, but so far it’s been limited to one-time bond funding and to the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s Xpress buses that offer commuter services for suburban counties.
Maybe one day – sooner rather than later – we’ll be able to supplement the local investments in transit with significant contributions from the state.
As the cries for More MARTA and more transit grow louder in the region and across Georgia, the state might shift its priorities from just road and bridges to alternative transportation modes.
From my perspective, that can’t happen soon enough.