An $8 billion proposal to expand MARTA via an additional half penny sales tax in Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties is coming under scrutiny as we get closer to January’s legislative session, at which several changes to the “mini-TSPLOST” provisions within House Bill 170 would need to be made before the plan could move forward. Even if the needed changes are made by the legislature, the plan’s supporters would have to build support from both local elected officials and finally the voters in a referendum on the proposed tax, which could happen as soon as next November’s elections.
The proposal, which would extend MARTA heavy rail northward along Georgia 400 to Windward Parkway, a build light rail line along the “Clifton Corridor” serving Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control, and improve transit service along I-20 in in south DeKalb county, drew some attention at a day long transportation summit last week at the World Congress Center. One of the panel discussions tied investment in transportation infrastructure, including transit, as a key to economic development. Pointing to moves by State Farm and Mercedes Benz to locate adjacent to transit in the Perimeter Center area, MARTA’s further expansion northward was touted as the way to continue that growth. Panelist David Allman of Regent Partners told attendees that those opposing expanded transit “would be on the wrong side of history.”
Yet, as Andrea Simmons detailed in a Wednesday AJC story, the proposal is drawing a mixed response from legislators. State Sen. Brandon Beach, who runs the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce in his day job, is all for expanding transit, while DeKalb Sen. Fran Millar is more cautious about adding to the tax burden of the MARTA counties, and wonders if a broader regional approach should be used.
In Sunday’s AJC, Jim Galloway brought up another potential obstacle to a deal: getting approval for the plan from all of the elected officials in the jurisdictions that would be included in the region to be taxed, including the mayors of each city, from Atlanta to tiny Mountain Park, with fewer than 1.000 residents. Galloway reports that many of the mayors present at a meeting to discuss a potential mini-TSPLOST want the proceeds to go towards roads and bridges. To get them to change their minds might involve some political horse trading over the remaining half cent of the potential tax.
According to Galloway, Roswell mayor Jere Wood and Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul left the meeting early to pay a visit to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to discuss rail expansion into north Fulton. And at a Fulton County Republican Party breakfast on Saturday, Wood brought up the proposed expansion and confirmed his support for it, but acknowledged that ultimately it will be the vote on the referendum that decides the matter.
Wood was followed by State Sen. John Albers, who also represents Roswell. Acknowledging that he didn’t agree 100% with Mayor Wood on expanded rail service, be brought up two objections.
The first was whether heavy rail was the best solution for expanding further north. Albers brought up using much less expensive bus rapid transit instead, noting that unlike rail, routes could be easily changed based on demand and population growth. “Buses can turn left and right,” he told those in attendance. Of course the flexibility of using BRT is less attractive to economic developers, who would prefer to have a permanent rail transit station around which to build offices and millennial-friendly live-work-play communities.
Albers’s other worry is what the presence of MARTA rail could do to Roswell’s quality of life, as the city is well known known for its parks and other suburban-friendly amenities. Albers is concerned that along with a rail station, MARTA would want to bring in high density residential apartments on its property, and in the surrounding area. To that end, he wanted to make sure that property owned by MARTA would be subject to local zoning restrictions, and by extension, the approval of city councils and mayors. Offering a quick rebuttal after Albers finished his remarks, Mayor Wood said the two weren’t that far apart, and expressed support for the local zoning requirement.
The reluctance of Senator Albers to jump on the proverbial MARTA expansion train might be explained by a healthy skepticism over the demand for transit by millennials. As he pointed out, in addition to locating next door to the Dunwoody transit station, State Farm will have two parking lots available for its employees who prefer to drive to work.