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.
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.”
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:
- Deliver equitable service improvements and other benefits to communities across the city.
- Support fast, efficient service by prioritizing transit investments in dedicated guideways.
- Create a layered, integrated transportation network designed to accomplish specific kinds of trips or tasks.
- Focus on investments that will shape future growth to create a more livable Atlanta.
- 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.
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?
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.