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Georgia lawmakers to reconsider MARTA rail funding

Georgia   ·   Public Transportation   ·   Atlanta Business Chronicle

MARTA officials are asking transit supporters in the General Assembly for legislation to help finance an ambitious list of rail projects that didn't get through the legislature last year.

But the same opponents to expanding MARTA's existing rail network in Fulton and DeKalb counties who derailed the 2016 MARTA bill are threatening to throttle this year's effort.

At the beginning of last year's legislative session, long-established business organizations including the Metro Atlanta Chamber and Council for Quality Growth joined forces with a new coalition of millennial business professionals to back a bill proposing a referendum in Fulton and DeKalb counties for a half-penny sales tax increase. The money was to help finance an extension of MARTA's North Line from Dunwoody to Alpharetta, a proposed light rail line serving the Clifton Corridor and an extension of rail service east along the Interstate 20 corridor to Stonecrest Mall.

But the Georgia Senate Transportation Committee shot down the measure amid opposition from state and local elected leaders in North Fulton.

Rather than let the idea die, transit supporters then got behind a scaled-back bill calling for a half-penny sales tax hike for rail projects limited to the city of Atlanta and a second vote to raise sales taxes three-fourths of a cent everywhere else in Fulton County to pay for needed road improvements. DeKalb County was dropped altogether from the measure.

That compromise cleared the General Assembly and was subsequently ratified by voters in Atlanta and the rest of Fulton.

Now, MARTA is back seeking to put those planned rail projects in Fulton County outside of Atlanta as well as DeKalb County back on the legislature's agenda.

"What we're looking for is to give Fulton and DeKalb the same thing Atlanta got in 2016," MARTA board Chairman Robbie Ashe said Jan. 6 following the annual State of MARTA breakfast in downtown Atlanta.

Transit backers are hoping to gain momentum when the Fulton County Commission takes up a resolution supporting an additional quarter-penny sales tax to pay for MARTA transit projects in areas of Fulton outside of Atlanta. Combined with the three-fourths of a penny tax voters approved last November, the additional quarter penny would bring the sales tax in Fulton up to the maximum allowed by state law.

Commissioners are expected to vote on the resolution after board Chairman John Eaves gathers input from Fulton's mayors at a meeting set for Jan. 26.

DeKalb County commissioners have yet to pursue a transit resolution, but new DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond is planning to meet with the county's legislative delegation Jan. 23 to talk strategy.

Thurmond said residents he has talked to support extending MARTA rail service further into DeKalb.

"Clearly, the future growth and prosperity of DeKalb County and the rest of metro Atlanta is tied to transit and building on the network that exists," he said.

While Thurmond said residents in both northern and southern DeKalb County are backing MARTA expansion, lawmakers representing North DeKalb as well as North Fulton have led the opposition to investing more tax money in a technology they say is fast becoming obsolete.

"We have driverless cars that are on the way," said state Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell. "To add heavy rail wouldn't be a good use of taxpayer dollars."

Even state and local political leaders who support more transit concede there's more to work to be done on how an expanded system would be governed.

The Fulton County resolution calls for an updated regional study on transit needs involving MARTA, the Atlanta Regional Commission, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, affected local governments and affected transit agencies.

Last month, a Senate study committee recommended the General Assembly lay the groundwork this year for legislation in 2018 that would establish a system of governance for the hodge-podge of transit agencies now serving metro Atlanta.

On the House side, Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, is proposing a transit commission that would, among other things, develop a workable transit governance system.

Eaves said taking the time to work out a governance model won't necessarily hold up the push for a referendum in Fulton.

"We feel this is a two-year process," he said. "Our goal is to put this on the ballot next year."

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