MARTA Bill’s Tug of War

I don’t have a dog in the MARTA expansion fight. I live in the city. A bus line runs right outside my door on the west side of town. Instant access. I take it when I need it, and sometimes just for the heck of it. For 25 years, I’ve used MARTA regularly getting to work, either downtown or in Dunwoody. As a New York native — with work stops in Boston, Florida, Texas and California — I love using transit. Or at least I love the idea of using transit.

In Atlanta, as we know, it’s not always practical. During my time managing the transportation opinion page at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I complained early on about MARTA’s “headways,” i.e. the frequency of arriving trains and buses. If you’re going to endure some of the inconveniences of transit, the service better be decent. When you’re running trains to the world’s busiest airport you need to emphasize the “rapid” in rapid transit. Nobody has time to wait 15 minutes on a train.

Fortunately, MARTA service has improved significantly in recent years. It’s one of the laundry list of compliments CEO/General Manager Keith Parker receives these days, after getting the financial books in shape, and along with the “Ride With Respect” campaign that has cracked down on knucklehead behavior.

But it’s business development that’s currently driving rail expansion plans to North Fulton; from Buckhead through the Clifton Road corridor to Emory University; and along I-20 to Stonecrest Mall. It’s become chapter and verse in the pro-transit handbook these days to repeat how State Farm, Mercedes Benz and Pulte Homes have hitched their corporate relocations along MARTA rail, and about how millennials want everything in life but cars.

So build more rail, the thinking goes, and more companies will come and attract their young talent, while traffic congestion will be relieved.

But even if that’s true, is it enough to commit additional taxes to raise $8 billion to expand the system?

Two North Fulton senators are at odds about it.

State Sen. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta) says his constituents want MARTA access, and he has sponsored a bill to fund expansion.

Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell) says residents don’t want it, and he’s become a leading opponent. It would take too long for heavy rail to benefit the area, Albers says. And he feels too much much of the money raised by the new tax in Fulton is slated for projects in DeKalb County.

At a committee hearing chaired by Albers this week, a number of North Fulton residents blasted the expansion plan and the increased taxes that would fund it. One even called MARTA “a cancer,” a bit of name-calling that prompted pro-MARTA developer Mark Toro (Avalon, Colony Square), seated in the audience, to post a photo on Twitter and refer to detractors as “dinosaurs.”

It was an uncomfortable meeting. The testimony was aggressive, argumentative and in some cases misinformed. At one point, Beach, working his cellphone, got MARTA ridership numbers that refuted speakers who were saying that passenger numbers were down. One senator on the committee cautioned speakers about throwing out dubious statistics.

Still, I get it: Some North Fulton residents don’t use MARTA. They don’t want MARTA nearby, and they don’t want a tax hike for something they don’t like. Some folks feel the same way about paying to fix their roads.

For the record, Beach insists the revenue would not come from a new tax hike. The half-penny sales tax bump would be “flexed,” he says, out of transportation funds available through HB 170, which passed last year. He also thinks transit-oriented developments built around MARTA stations in North Fulton would give the community an advantage in attracting new business.

But it’s more than taxes that’s fueling opposition. “The politicians are scared to death” of MARTA expansion, Beach said in an interview earlier this week. “They’ve been fighting MARTA for such a long time. Back in 1999 when I got elected to city council in Alpharetta, I bashed Grady and I bashed MARTA. I don’t bash Grady at all any more. And I don’t bash MARTA,” he said, pointing out that these institutions have been turned around with professional leadership.

“It’s not that people are anti-transit,” Albers told the AJC. “They are smart, and they are educated and they know that billions of dollars to bring something to our community that will not do anything to alleviate traffic — in fact it will increase traffic, and will take a decade to get there — makes no sense.”

That doesn’t make sense to Beach. MARTA’s opponents, he said, are desperate for solutions. “Some of the politicians are saying, well, nobody is going to use it, and then in the next sentence they’re saying it’s going to create so much congestion coming into it. Well, you can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to have all this congestion, you’re going to have ridership. Just tell me one or the other. They’re scared of it. I think the people are ahead of the politicians on this issue. If you look at the polling data, the people want this.”

And, Beach added, MARTA expansion in Fulton “will force Cobb and Gwinnett’s hand to join” the system, thus establishing a true regional transportation agency, something state leadership should have fostered a long time ago.

Unfortunately, after this week’s committee histrionics, that kind of cooperation seems a long way down the road.


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