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Atlanta Blog

MARTA Seeks Huge Expansion, but Significant Roadblocks Lie Ahead

December 14, 2015 | by Andy Roberts

Arguing that a robust public transit system is essential to economic development, MARTA is hoping to undertake a vast expansion—potentially doubling the system—in the coming years. But winning approval and funding from lawmakers and the public could be an uphill battle.

The Plan and Its Funding

MARTA’s proposed expansion plan is three-fold. It would:

  1. Add five new stations to extend MARTA heavy rail northward along Georgia 400 to Windward Parkway.
  2. Link the Lindbergh station with the Avondale station in DeKalb County by building a light rail line along the “Clifton Corridor” that serves Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control.
  3. Improve transit service along I-20 in south DeKalb County. This effort would involve adding a new rapid transit bus service between the Five Points station downtown and a new transit center at Wesley Chapel Road, as well as building a 12-mile extension of the existing heavy rail line south from the Indian Creek station to the Wesley Chapel transit center. This extension would run adjacent to I-285 and then stretch east—parallel to I-20—to the Mall at Stonecrest in Southeastern DeKalb County.

To fund this effort, MARTA is hoping that the Georgia Legislature will change House Bill 170, the $1 billion transportation bill passed this spring, to allow half of the penny-per-dollar sales tax that counties may levy for transportation to go toward MARTA instead of the county.  Counties can only impose the penny tax if voters approve by referendum.

If legislators agree to the change, half of the penny tax in Fulton, DeKalb, and Clayton counties would go toward the MARTA expansion. MARTA also wants the legislature to extend the time frame of the additional sales tax from five years to forty-two years. That way, the tax will correspond with the time span of the existing sales tax collections in Clayton, Fulton, and DeKalb, and MARTA can borrow against the proceeds.

The new sales tax would generate an estimated $200 million in new revenues, which, by issuing bonds, MARTA could use to fund about $4 billion in construction. If MARTA could then obtain matching federal funds, it would have about $8 billion to work with—enough to double the existing MARTA system, according to an online article in Mass Transit magazine.

Reactions Mixed

Lawmakers’ and public officials’ reactions to the proposed expansion have been mixed. Proponents like Sen. Brandon Beach of Alpharetta maintain that younger generations of workers want more and better mass transit options. They point to recent corporate relocations—such as State Farm, Kaiser Permanente, Mercedes-Benz, NCR and PulteGroup—that have been driven in part by access to mass transit.

Others, however, are not convinced that an expansion would benefit their area. They say that bringing MARTA further out into the suburbs will lead to more high-density housing, destroy the residential character that defines so many of Atlanta’s suburbs, and fail to resolve their area’s traffic problems. Some, like Sen. Fran Millar of DeKalb, also worry about increasing their constituents’ tax burden.

Tough Road Ahead?

The mixed reactions of lawmakers may portend a lengthy, grueling battle for public approval of the MARTA plan. Under the terms of House Bill 170, all parties involved—each mayor in each county affected, as well as the county commission—must sign off on the “intergovernmental agreement” that determines how revenue from the sales tax would be spent, Jim Galloway of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution points out.

The mayor of Alpharetta in Fulton County has already called the MARTA expansion plan “an unequivocally bad idea.” Mayor David Belle Isle says that adding more lanes to GA 400 would be a better traffic solution for his North Fulton city.

In another potentially ominous sign, last month the city council of Johns Creek approved a resolution opposing any expansion of MARTA into Johns Creek, a North Fulton city 30 minutes north of Atlanta. The resolution states that Johns Creek taxpayers “have been paying a 1% sales tax dedicated to funding MARTA with limited value to the residents of the City of Johns Creek” and that “the State of Georgia has no overall transportation plan yet increased taxes by $1B per year to fund unspecified transportation projects.”

The hearts and minds of city officials may be won if MARTA properties are made subject to local zoning restrictions. Or, in a less conciliatory action, the Georgia Legislature could move to allow the transit agency to ask voters directly for money without county officials’ unanimous approval.

Next Steps

The Georgia Legislature reconvenes in January. If it grants MARTA’s request and changes H.B 170 to permit allocation of half of the penny tax to the transit system, the issue could come up for referendum on the November 2016 ballot.

Blog contributed by Andy Roberts, Vice President, with Cresa Atlanta. Andy has a passion for developing custom real estate strategies and works with companies across metro Atlanta. For questions or more information, contact Andy at 404-446-1866 or aroberts@cresa.com.