February 17, 2016 10:30 AM
Senator Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta) is sponsoring a bill (SB 330) that would allow a referendum this year to allow MARTA to expand north on Georgia 400 from North Springs station to Windward Parkway.
After pushback from North Fulton residents opposed to shelling out more for rail transit that they say they would not use, Beach, MARTA and Fulton County mayors came up with a compromise that would allow Atlanta and other Fulton residents to pay different amounts for five years. They also tweaked the bill’s language to substitute “transit” for “rail,” in case a bus system is the final choice.
Beach and MARTA brought the compromise to the Senate Transportation Committee Tuesday. Beach repeated that the revenue is not an additional tax, but that it would be “flexed” out of the existing TSPLOST approved via HB 170 last year, with the MARTA portion extended for decades beyond the five-year TSPLOST to allow for bonding.
Robbie Ashe, president of the MARTA board of directors, explained the compromise before yesterday’s committee hearing at the Capitol.
Here’s what Ashe said:
“The proposal is that in Atlanta voters would be given the option go to point 5 cents for MARTA, .5 cents for a countywide TSPLOST. Outside of Atlanta in Fulton County, voters would have the opportunity to vote for .25 cents for MARTA and .75 cents for TSPLOST for five years, with the MARTA vote being a phase-in approach. After that five-year period that .25 cent for MARTA would step up to be .5 for the remaining duration of the half penny. The first five years residents in Atlanta and outside Atlanta would be levying different amounts for MARTA, but after that 5-year period everybody would be levying the same half-cent.
“The idea is that with a bunch of folks in North Fulton, but also in south Fulton, there is some interest in having more road money upfront but recognizing that MARTA needs longterm money — a significant amount of longterm money— to get to bonding capacity and to get the project delivered. So that for the first five years, which is all the TSPLOST is ever going to be anyway, at least in five-year periods, you front-load roads and bridges and whatnot at a 3 to 1 ratio. But you take the one vote now on MARTA on .25 for five years and .5 for the remaining balance in the areas outside Atlanta. That gives MARTA about 94 percent of the money that would have been raised had it been .5 all along. It does have some adverse financial consequences for us in terms of preventing us from being able to afford to pay for certain things in cash. We’ll have to bond earlier. Over the life of the bonds, over the life of the taxes, (it’s) probably a $390 million negative hit. But, that said, it is a whole lot better than nothing. Between the two, we would prefer .5. (all along for everyone) but if the phase-in is what gets everybody to the table and gets everybody comfortable then that’s certainly something we can make work.”
When asked about some residents’ preference for Bus Rapid Transit or express buses, Ashe said bus service would be provided right away.
“One of the things we have heard — and reacted to and clarified — is that we will be able to provide an enhanced level of bus service almost immediately. So that while the rail line is being constructed we will be able to do significant amounts of express bus and circulator bus service so that we can deliver an immediate transit connection. Frankly, one of the things it will also do is help acclimate folks to the idea of getting on (transit) at Windward Parkway and riding MARTA down instead of beating their heads against their steering wheels sitting in a single-passenger vehicle.”
However, the chairman was clear on his reference for rail over buses, and how important rail is for the area’s business portfolio. He said he sits in pitch meetings the Metro Chamber conducts for companies looking to locate in metro Atlanta. Corporations want to know about the breadth of the transit system. “Nobody,” he says, “asks where your closest bus stop is.”