Proposed MARTA sales tax in Atlanta holds promise for region

By Maria Saporta

The City of Atlanta has much at stake in the passing of an additional half-penny sales tax for MARTA.

The 40-year tax would give MARTA a total of $2.5 billion to invest in transit-related projects – local funds that could leverage federal dollars.

It also could give the city a wonderful opportunity to show the rest of the region how a more urban-oriented transit system can serve the core of Atlanta.

But for the tax to pass, we as a community need to do two things.

We need to make sure the proposed list of projects has strong buy-in from the community at-large.

Atlanta Streetcar

Atlanta Streetcar rides on Peachtree Street on the morning of May 16 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

And we need to make the Atlanta Streetcar – the 2.7 mile loop now operating in downtown from Centennial Olympic Park to the King Center – more welcomed by the public by reducing or removing the fare altogether.

In a recent in-depth conversation, MARTA General Manager Keith Parker made it clear that the transit agency will be a key driver in what happens.

“These will be MARTA-owned and operated assets,” Parker said.

MARTA will make sure there is enough flexibility with the project list so that if DeKalb County and the areas of Fulton County outside of Atlanta also decide to increase their MARTA sales tax then the Clifton Corridor rail line another multi-jurisdictional projects could be developed.

But for the moment, all eyes are on the City of Atlanta.

“We are looking at this from a multimodal point of view,” Parker said. “Timing-wise, this could not be coming at a better time. We are doing a comprehensive redo of the way we provide bus service. We’ll have a mixture of different types of buses –articulated buses with Wi-Fi; neighborhood circulators and connections from those neighborhood buses to the heavy-duty routes.”

mike bodker keith parker

Johns Creek Mayor Michael Bodker visits with MARTA’s Keith Parker on a DART light rail car in Dallas (Photo by Maria Saporta)

MARTA also said there would be much better frequency, more weekend service, more night-time services for Atlanta’s bus system and even more customer friendly.

The MARTA board approved a draft project list at a meeting on May 11. The City of Atlanta is working on  using the following guidelines:

  1. Deliver equitable service improvements and other benefits to communities across the city.
  2. Support fast, efficient service by prioritizing transit investments in dedicated guideways.
  3. Create a layered, integrated transportation network designed to accomplish specific kinds of trips or tasks.
  4. Focus on investments that will shape future growth to create a more livable Atlanta.
  5. Prioritize service needs and opportunities inside the city of Atlanta while laying a foundation for a more robust regional network.

Melissa Mullinax, a senior advisor to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, said the plan is to present a hybrid list of projects to the Atlanta City Council on May 19. The public will then have an opportunity to weigh in on the proposal at meetings on May 25 (SW), May 26 (NE), June 1 (SE) and June 2 (NW). The goal is for the full Council to vote on the resolution on June 20th.

potential high capacity rail

Map of MARTA’s draft of proposed high capacity rail projects (Special: MARTA)

Mullinax also said the city has not reached a final decision on whether to go for an additional .25 or an additional .50 of a penny sales tax for a five-year transportation referendum. A quarter penny likely allow the city to acquire all the land needed to complete the BeltLine, and half-penny would allow the city to build out the trails on the newly-acquired property.

But some members of the City Council have expressed concern of Atlanta reaching 9 percent cap for sales taxes. They also are concerned about whether Atlanta would have the capacity to invest all the new revenue.

Out in the community, there’s another concern – how the Atlanta Streetcar has been received by observers. When the system was free, ridership was steadily increasing. When the system began charging a $1 a fare, ridership dropped off.

Apparently it costs as much to operate the Streetcar’s fare collection system as the Streetcar is collecting from fares. In other words, there’s no revenue gain from the fare.

Because the system is still in its infancy and the fares aren’t contributing to the bottom line, why not make the Streetcar free until it’s been expanded and has become a more vital part of people’s lifestyle?

potential bus expansions

Potential bus improvements in MARTA’s draft project list (Special: MARTA)

Mullinax said the idea to eliminate the fare until a later time has support in the Atlanta business community.

Mayor Reed may be willing to consider free fares.

“We are actually shifting to an advertisement-based model,” spokeswoman Anne Torres wrote in an email. “While the Mayor is open to the idea, we believe that keeping the fare system in place helps increase the safety and security of passengers. We are also expanding the system to connect to the BeltLine, which will significantly increase ridership.”

Although residents in Atlanta have shown a willingness to pass new taxes for transportation, free fares would give more Atlantans and visitors an opportunity to experience the Streetcar before being asked to expand the system.

The more transportation options we have, the better off we will be.

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.

26 replies
  1. Burroughston Broch says:

    Maria, your forecast is off base by a factor of 2.
    The sales tax will raise $2.5 billion over 40 years. Those sales taxes will just pay off about $1.25 billion in bonds that will be sold to pay for construction. So MARTA will only have $1.25 billion to spend, not $2.5 billion.
    If used exclusively for Streetcar extensions, the entire $1.25 billion would only buy 19 miles, if you believe the City’s $65 million per mile cost estimate. The City underestimated the cost of the first phase by 50%.Report

    Reply
  2. TerryGresham says:

    Can someone more plugged in to this answer this question for me? I’m beginning to pay more attention now and look to get involved.

    Why isn’t DeKalb County deciding to vote on a tax? I thought I read something about N. Fulton reps blocking a vote, but are DeKalb reps not in favor of MARTA expansion either?Report

    Reply
  3. TranspoATL says:

    Burroughston Broch you’ve been posting this a lot, and it’s not accurate at all.  GO bonds are quite different than a home mortgage in that the % of debt service is muchhhh lower than what you’re calculating.  You wouldn’t see 50% of those funds paid to debt service and issuance, maybe something closer to 10-20% range.  Also MARTA will take whatever amount of money they receive by selling bonds and match it with federal transit dollars.  A new rail line extension would only require at least 20% from MARTA, and up to 80% from the Federal Transit Administration.  So even if you were correct in how the bond market works, which you are not, the $1.25 billion in “cash” that MARTA would receive would end up being in the range of $5-6 billion in total project costs when including federal grants and matches.  This money can go a long way…Report

    Reply
  4. BrionteMcCorkle says:

    TerryGresham DeKalb County is pursuing an eHOST and SPLOST to be able to afford to fix their crumbling road infrastructure. They are likely to pursue the MARTA tax in the next possible election.Report

    Reply
  5. SteveHagen says:

    As a new resident who lives in DeKalb County a trolley looking bus should have been tried before a full blown trolley with tracks. If there was transport cooperation in the Metro area, I think 1 or 2 percent on gas and diesel only would be a much fairer tax for MARTA than taxing all items in regressive sales tax. Raising gas tax now while oil is low is the way to go. Gee, that rhymes….Report

    Reply
  6. Tim Langan says:

    Use the money for a train line from Atlantic Station to one of the Midtown stations to Ponce City Market. All three areas have the density to support it and the area within a block of PCM will be getting even more density in the next few years. A cable car along the Eastside Beltline would never carry as many passengers (and would require us to rebuild most of the bridge/overhangs). It would also set up a train to the Galleria/Cumberland/SunTrust Park area when Cobb finally says yes.Report

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  7. Jim Williamson says:

    I think we should have a ” public services tax” on every parking space to off set the cost of Police/EMT and roads in the metro area!Report

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  8. Fourthwarden says:

    SteveHagen MARTA can’t levy a gas tax, that is against state law. State gas tax can not go to anything other than roads, anyway. Changing that would have been a much harder political move than what MARTA tried, and we all saw how that went down. I don’t like sales taxes for their regressive nature, but I will take it over nothing because we need to invest in our transit infrastructure. It’s an opportunity cost I think is worth it. 

    As for using a trolley (looking) bus, vs. a streetcar, to test the route… that’s not really what is going on here. It’s not that they need to test the routes so much as they just need to grow beyond the limited scale of the current route. The downtown loop was never meant to stand on its own. It was never meant to be this majorly successful thing with the short reach it currently has. It has always been part of a larger system plan, as a spring-board to launch expansions from. Testing the route with a bus is just, not something that would have impacted the decisions as they were being made as far as construction was going to go. Maybe it would have changed the way the fares were instigated, but I’m not so sure.Report

    Reply
  9. SteveHagen says:

    I figured it would require legislation to add sales or fuel tax to the region. Guess regional leaders prefer to attend the potluck but expect others to bring the real food. That is no way to build community much less a dynamic community.Report

    Reply
  10. Kevin Mulkey says:

    Impossible I know, but even farther NW the better. But just to get a rail line to the new stadium is going to be hard enough.Report

    Reply
  11. J.r. Rich-Bellerose says:

    While this is great there should be a half penny tax on all the regional counties since they all benefit from Marta. This region needs to get with the 21st century.Report

    Reply
  12. Burroughston Broch says:

    His Dishonor the mayor has acknowledged that the City has a $1 billion backlog of broken and decayed infrastructure but also said he could afford only a $150 million bond issue to address it. Is that what you call being in the black? If your answer is yes then you should look at your Accounting 101 textbook.Report

    Reply
  13. Burroughston Broch says:

    Run your own calculation. Assume a 40 year term and 4% interest and tell us what you calculate.
    You assume the City will magically get matching funds. There is a lot of competition for those funds and the City’s winning percentage is not great.
    And don’t forget the City’s dismal cost estimating performance on Streetcar Phase 1.Report

    Reply
  14. Carl Holt says:

    That line would eat up the entire amount of money raised by the sales tax. Expensive boring and tunneling. Using streetcar and/or LRT is cheaper and allows surface transit.Report

    Reply
  15. TranspoATL says:

    Noel M The Atlanta City Council is voting on whether or not to approve the list and whether or not to take it to the voters, but they can’t approve the 1/2 penny themselves.  If they decide they’re ok with the list, you should see the question on the ballot in November.Report

    Reply
  16. TranspoATL says:

    Fourthwarden Burroughston Broch Ha, no, no they can not afford the bond payments of a multi-billion dollar project without new revenues or gutting their current budgets.Report

    Reply
  17. Burroughston Broch says:

    TranspoATL Burroughston Broch  Thanks for the link. The results were worse than expected. If the City can pay $2.5 billion over 40 years, that would repay only a $1.01 billion bond issue at 4% interest. Even at 2% interest the City could borrow only $1.5 billion.Report

    Reply
  18. wadams1 says:

    Burroughston Broch Burroughston Broch  even if you’re correct, what’s your argument? that we shouldn’t build mass transit? because the long-term health, safety, financial and environmental costs of inducing demand for driving everywhere to do everything by building and widening more roads and highways is much more costly than a few guesstimate, arbitrary numbers you’re throwing around…that’s clearly the incorrect approach. we’ve tried it for the past 50-60 years and its failed miserably, despite massive federal and state subsidies. it’s time to start rethinking how we want to grow as a city for people, not cars. 

    the best approach would be to create an urban growth boundary, ideally limited to the atlanta beltline loop where zoning codes, land-use restrictions, parking mandates, redlining and historic preservation laws can be altered to encourage much greater density with walkable complete streets and greater access to non-vehicular transportation: bikes, MARTA, streetcars, etc.

    most everything outside of the beltline loop is too far gone with suburban sprawl and conventional zoning codes and it’s not financially or logistically feasible to expand rail to connect these places outside of the beltline loop. give businesses tax breaks to relocate to within that defined UGB and tax cars for coming into the City of Atlanta and OTP. 

    expand MARTA rail lines within the beltline, connect a few places with the streetcar and redesign streetscapes so they’re more walkable. expanding MARTA to cobb county is a waste of time, they made their ugly, tasteless bed of dangerous, unhealthy, inefficient suburban sprawl, let them deal with it.Report

    Reply
  19. wadams1 says:

    Burroughston Broch even if you’re correct, what’s your argument? that we shouldn’t build mass transit? bc the long-term health, safety, financial and environmental costs of inducing demand for driving everywhere to do everything by building and widening more roads and highways is much more costly than a few guesstimate, arbitrary numbers you’re throwing around…that’s clearly the incorrect approach. we’ve tried it for the past 50-60 years and its failed miserably, despite massive federal and state subsidies. it’s time to start rethinking how we want to grow as a city for people, not cars.Report

    Reply
  20. Burroughston Broch says:

    wadams1 Burroughston Broch  My point is the cost has been deliberately understated by the City and MARTA as an inducement for voters to approve the SPLOST. The SPLOST will not provide nearly $2.5 billion for construction and $2.5 billion is nowhere near the total cost. Future Federal funding is a crapshoot at best.
    I like public transport and use it wherever I can, but I don’t ignore the cost to build and operate.Report

    Reply
  21. mnst says:

    You’re quite simply wrong about the Beltline eastside trail. The trail was designed, and the bridges were built, to accomodate future light rail transit that will go next to the existing trail. Those light rail vehicles hold ~160 passengers each. It’s time to stop hoping for the day when Cobb county wants transit, and build it in areas that need it today, like the Beltline.Report

    Reply
  22. scfranklin says:

    Since the beginning of time, well notreally, but since the first time the Marta tax referendum passed in the 1970’s, Atlanta voters have expected lower than national average fares, aggressive minority and female business achievement goals and an open process to determine the projects. No doubt Marta and the city will subscribe to these principles this time too.Report

    Reply

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