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.
I appreciate your coverage of the event but am disappointed by your characterization of this discussion as “histrionics”. While there were some jabs taken by both sides at Senator Albers’ hearing there were also a lot of facts and objective analysis presented.
The population of the City of Atlanta was 496,973 in 1970 and MARTA was created the next year. By the 2010 census the City of Atlanta’s population had declined to 420,003 residents while the population of the surrounding metropolitan areas increased by more than 3 million.
For 45 years an outdated transit plan concentrated on a stagnant urban core received billions of dollars in sales tax revenues while booming areas of growth have been starved of money for burgeoning infrastructure needs. Senator Beach’s 50% MARTA Tax increase proposal compounds that error and makes it worse by cementing it in place for another 50 years.
North Fulton is booming and Alpharetta has attracted thousands of new jobs over the last few years despite claims of impending doom by Senator Beach and Mark Toro. The greatest threat to that success is the congestion on our surface streets, arterial roads and GA 400. Senator Beach’s plan would do nothing to address our needs would make it even more difficult for cities to address them.
The legislature tried to address that problem with HB 170 last year which allowed Fulton County to levy an additional 1% sales tax to be distributed among its municipalities for those crucial infrastructure needs. Senator Beach’s tax increase bill complete destroys that framework by cutting the funds available to cities and increasing the MARTA tax by 50% for so long that the Millennial generation will be on Medicare by the time it expires.
SB 313 would cost the City of Alpharetta alone nearly $42 million dollars over the 5 years permitted currently. The cities of North Fulton combined would lose a total of $251 million dollars to MARTA. That is money that could address immediate needs and required to be allocated for projects which can be completed or substantially begun within 5 years. But under Senator Beach’s bill that $251 million would be diverted to MARTA projects dependent on receiving billions of dollars from the federal government and under the best of circumstances would not even be through the environmental studies phase in 5 years.
And as I stated along with several other speakers including Mr. Feigenbaum, the only credentialed transportation expert to testify, Bus Rapid Transit is the only transit method which makes any sense in low density suburban areas like North Fulton. Curiously HB 313 actually designates the cheaper, more efficient BRT for expansion in Dekalb County but there has been no explanation for the extra billion dollars it would cost to use heavy rail in Fulton.
For those wondering where the tax revenue projections I use come from they are the numbers compiled by Fulton County for HB 170 negotiations among the cities.