North, south Fulton leaders to seek half-penny sales tax for bus service

By Maggie Lee

A slide from a Fulton County presentation shows the transit plan approved by commissioners and mayors.

A slide from a Fulton County presentation shows the transit plan approved by commissioners and mayors.

After months of public meetings and a study by consultants, a group of Fulton leaders say it’s time to ask the state Legislature and voters for a half-penny sales tax to fund faster bus lines.

What they’re proposing is a 40-year half-penny sales tax to fund buses that either run in their own lanes, or that run in mixed traffic but get priority at lights or can jump ahead at some intersections. Both types of bus routes are supposed to deliver some of the speed and directness of rail without the high prices.

The Fulton County commissioners and north and south Fulton mayors who met on Monday and came to the decision reviewed other scenarios, including a quarter-penny sales tax that would fund fewer bus lines, or asking for a half-penny but spending much of it on a MARTA rail expansion in north Fulton.

But in the end, they saw little value in spending this proposed tranche of local sales taxes on heavy rail, when the roughly $4.9 billion (plus expected federal cash) could buy many more bus lines than miles of rail.

Fulton mayors and commissioners met on Monday and decided to lobby the state Legislature for a half-penny transit sales tax. Credit: Maggie Lee

Fulton mayors and commissioners met on Monday and decided to lobby the state Legislature for a half-penny transit sales tax. Credit: Maggie Lee

Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann, speaking to her fellow elected officials on Monday, said the point of a transit plan is to get people where they need to go.

“In my opinion, the BRT/ART [bus rapid transit and arterial rapid transit] plan does that more than any of the others. It’s more affordable, it’s quicker and it serves a wider area than anything that has heavy rail,” said the north Fulton commissioner.

Her south Fulton colleague Marvin Arrington also endorsed the BRT/ART plan, saying it covers the whole county, the parts both north and south of Atlanta. He thought a plan with north Fulton rail would have been a hard sell.

“If we’re going to be asking Fulton County tax payers to pay half a cent, it’s going to be hard to convince people in south Fulton to pay that for heavy rail in north Fulton,” he said.

So the next step is for Fulton commissioners and city mayors to convince state lawmakers to put the half-cent question on a ballot. And if voters then approved it, tax collections could start as early as 2022.

The city of Atlanta isn’t a part of this proposal; in 2016 voters there  approved a new transit sales tax of four-tenths of a penny.

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