Transit Support Growing While Funding Still Elusive

By Charlie Harper, Executive Director PolicyBEST

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, $100 Million pool of funds for the state’s transit agencies.

The money was significant because it represented a nose under the camel’s 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.