Transit Support Growing While Funding Still Elusive

This week’s Courier Herald column:

At a meeting in Athens held in conjunction with the Legislature’s biennial 2014 gathering, Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle somewhat surprised those in attendance by stating “We cannot avoid the issue of transit.” During the following 2015 legislative session, a bill to provide roughly a billion new dollars per year for roads and bridges – roughly half of that intended for maintenance of existing infrastructure – included a one time, $75 Million pool of funds for the state’s transit agencies.

The money was significant because it represented a camel’s nose under the tent. The state followed up new GOP positive talk on transit with a check. But the check did not translate to a permanent revenue stream. Yet.

A year later, House Speaker David Ralston said at a pre-legislative breakfast briefing held by PolicyBEST “we can no longer afford for transit to be an afterthought”. Ralston noted the financial turnaround of MARTA under General Manager Keith Parker, as well as the various companies that have relocated to be near a MARTA rail station. The direct tie of MARTA rail to economic development has transformed the conversation regarding MARTA expansion into one that can be had even in Republican circles.

Discussion is relatively easy. Legislation, specifically ones that identify and appropriate sources of funds, are a bit harder.

Currently existing MARTA rail is funded by a one percent sales tax collected on sales in DeKalb and Fulton counties. Clayton County residents have begun paying the same tax, with commuter rail being studied to link new rail lines from the south into the existing MARTA rail system.

In a bill proposed this year, leaders in Fulton and DeKalb would have been able to ask their citizens if they wanted to contribute another one half cent on every dollar of purchases to expand the existing rail network. That bill failed to reach the floor of the Senate before “crossover day”, thus ending its chances of becoming law this year.

There will be one more attempt to revive this plan this year, with a twist. Due to opposition primarily from North Fulton municipal leaders, the City of Atlanta would be able to assess its own half cent tax. The issue would keep non-Atlanta Fulton County consumers from seeing a tax increase. The issue would also likely block expansion of the current MARTA rail network for any projects north of I-285. Instead, projects such as the Beltline, the “Clifton Corridor” link to Emory University, or possibly even streetcar expansion would replace rail up the Georgia 400 corridor deep into North Fulton and near growing Forsyth County.

The GOP likes “local control” solutions. Politics also operates under the Golden Rule of “he who has the gold makes the rules”. Much of the largest portion of Fulton County’s tax base is the City of Atlanta. Tying up another half cent of Atlanta’s money likely freezes out future sales tax funding solutions for rail outside the city. Some still stuck on transit talking points from the 1970’s may see this as a positive. Others whose main opposition was the new tax (and potential 9% sales tax rate in Fulton if a companion road tax is passed) should be motivated to look at the bigger picture.

Much of the support for the recent transportation funding bill came from outside of metro Atlanta. This is generally because in the parts of the state that don’t have a traffic problem, they also don’t have a “growth” problem. Many parts of the state see new transportation infrastructure as an opportunity to expand economic development in an effort to fix that.

This now also represents the motivation behind many of the recent attitudes on transit. It should be noted that the state leaders who have voiced support for transit solutions hail from non-Atlanta locations such as Gainesville and Blue Ridge. There is a statewide interest in keeping metro Atlanta a strong candidate for economic development opportunities. Transit is now part of that sales kit.

While it is easy to look at MARTA as an “Atlanta” issue, the counties that now level taxes for the authority contain one in five Georgians. If the two other counties covered in the MARTA act, Cobb and Gwinnett, are included, one in three Georgians are in the footprint of potential MARTA rail solutions. With the ability to expand roads within the metro’s core dwindling, transit also becomes a viable option for peak traffic relief from major corridors that affect a sizable portion of the state’s population. Thus, this can be said to be a statewide issue.

Expanding the envelope further, Georgia has many other transit agencies looking at how funding is handled in Atlanta. Chatham, specifically, is looking for pattern legislation to expand local service.

With the clock running out on the 2016 session, what we have at this point is the open ear of state leaders and a large portion of Georgians living in counties (and driving on congested highways) that would be directly impacted by expanded transit options. What is missing is consensus leadership from these same affected counties.

The Speaker, Lieutenant Governor, and Governor are receptive to a solution to expand transit within the inner core of the Metro Atlanta area, as well as other cities where transit makes sense. They are equally not anxious to propose anything that appears to be a state crafted solution handed down from above.

The door has been opened for greater state cooperation and involvement in transit. It will be up to a coalition of metro Atlanta legislators to decide how – and when – to walk through it.

8
Leave a Reply

Please Login to comment
4 Comment threads
4 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
6 Comment authors
SaltycrackerDave BearseBakerEllynngcp Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Jack Fitz
Jack Fitz

PLEASE PLEASE PLEEASSEEEEEEEEE let this go to a City of Atlanta vote. The residents just passed a dang water and sewer tax with 74% approval. If you ask Atlanta voters to pass a tax for the Beltline and Clifton Corridor it will EASILY pass. And you know the Chamber would get behind it because of the economic development and increased transit options. A regional approach is always the most ideal, but since some of these regional silos want to politicize transit (as evidence by the failure of SB 313), then the city must be given the reins to its own… Read more »

gcp
gcp

Dekalb would have to pass a sales tax increase also because much of Clifton Corridor is in Dekalb. Additionally, Dekalb is talking about one cent sales tax for road improvements so it’s unlikely Dekalb voters would want two tax increases.

Ellynn
Jack Fitz
Jack Fitz

Thanks for that link! That was an outstanding excerpt and Ryan Gravel does such a good job of breaking down the complex planning challenges facing all cities. As someone who grew up on the car-dependent streets of East Cobb and now bides my time on the sidewalks of Midtown, I fully understand where Ryan is coming from regarding the health and social benefits of dense city-centers. I’m three blocks from work, four blocks from my grocery store, five blocks from the park, and my office is conveniently right above my local pub. Being able to walk to all of that… Read more »

Saltycracker
Saltycracker

Nice story. The concern for subsidizing sprawl is valid. The new surburban cities today expand on the backs of county services or localized tax incentives from the county/state revenues.

Paris is a magical city, the architecture, the history, the culture…..we spent some time with proud locals spending a lot of money living happily in a way unacceptable to how most Americans prefer their daily lives. Our mode of transportation was the subway and the complex system is something we can’t duplicate, I doubt the below system coming to Atlanta:

http://parisbytrain.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/paris-metro-mini-map-2014.pdf

Baker
Baker

Tolls just inside perimeter on 75 southbound and 85 southbound ought to help. Just a dollar. What’s a measly little dollar.

Baker
Baker

…or…and possibly better or in addition to…if this Milton County nonsense ever really did make it through…one right at the border, just inside from the river I guess. Jan Jones could pay it everyday on her way to work.

Dave Bearse
Dave Bearse

It went under the radar that the state in support of local control began picking up an $8M+ annual GRTA bus tab a couple of years ago.

Is the $75M all real additional money, or will it be a pot from drawn from for future GRTA expenses, leaving leftovers to MARTA and other statewide transit?