With Governor Deal’s Signature, a Way Forward for Improved Transit in Atlanta and Better Roads in Fulton

Today was a significant bill signing day for Governor Deal. In addition to measures requiring the testing of rape kits, providing funding for nonprofit organizations offering pregnancy counseling, regulating the use of fireworks, and more, the governor signed Senate Bill 369, the session’s measure dealing with transit. The measure allows the city of Atlanta to levy a one half percent sales tax to be used for transit, and the rest of Fulton County to levy a three quarters of one percent sales tax to pay for road improvements.

The bill is a shadow of the original proposal, which would have allowed an additional one percent sales tax in Fulton and DeKalb counties. Proceeds from that tax, along with matching federal money, would have been used to extend MARTA heavy rail four stations further north along Georgia 400, construct a light rail line between the Lindbergh and Avondale heavy rail stations, and build a combination heavy rail and bus rapid transit line to Stonecrest Mail in south DeKalb county.

That measure, proposed by Senator Brandon Beach, ran into opposition at the Gold Dome, and from mayors of several north Fulton cities. Some were worried about imposing a tax that might not show significant results for 20 years or more. DeKalb county leadership wasn’t warm to adding an additional tax, and indicated they didn’t want to have the needed authorizing referendum. And still others were worried that passage of the measure would remove any incentive for Fulton county to participate in a future regional system that could include Gwinnett, Cobb and Forsyth counties.

The Atlanta tax, which will last until 2057 and is estimated to raise about $2.5 billion, is expected to be used for light rail along the BeltLine. Unlike the proposal to bring heavy rail further north, the light rail will help solve the “last mile” problem, giving residents not within walking distance of a heavy rail station access. It also fulfills a key goal of the BeltLine’s existence. In the remainder of the county, where cars remain dominant, proceeds of their five year tax will be used on a list of projects voters will see before granting final approval for the tax.

Before the first penny can be taxed, government officials will need to go through a process not dissimilar to what the region went through in preparation for 2012’s TSPLOST. Governments will have to prepare a list of projects that the tax proceeds will pay for, then approve a referendum so voters can have their say. Only after voter approval can improvements start.

With the passage of House Bill 170 in 2015, lawmakers indicated they didn’t want to deal with additional transportation legislation (read transit funding and governance) for a few years, until the impact of the nearly $1 billion in taxes for roads was more fully known. As the 2016 session was preparing to get underway, both Governor Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston affirmed the importance of improving transit. Recently, Lt. Governor Casey Cagle talked about his vision for improved transit. Study committees will meet this summer to (again) look at how the state might tackle regional transit. It won’t be an easy lift. Much like HB 170, getting a bill to pass will require time and the involvement of leadership in both parties. SB 369 was a nice appetizer. It will be interesting to see if the legislature is ready for a full meal in 2017.

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Dave Bearse
Dave Bearse

Now Atlanta can get dedicated funding to feed the white elephants that are called streetcars in Atlanta.

Kyle Wingfield touts Cagle as supporting transit more publicly than any other Georgia Republican, yet Cagle in discussing MARTA Express service probably doesn’t even understand it would require at minimum a third track. Yeah, a Cagle governorship will be a boon to transit, if boon means that Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton are the only counties paying for it.