By Patrick Hickey –
The recently proposed $8 billion MARTA expansion has sparked quite the debate. Hardly a surprise, given the flammable nature of public transportation in Atlanta and the immense sums of money being tossed around. Before anybody gets too heated though it’s important to get all the facts straight, from funding to proposed rail lines.
A starting point for this discussion has to begin with MARTA CEO Keith Parker, whose recent successes garnered him the ‘Outstanding Public Transportation Manager’ award from the American Public Transportation Association earlier this month. In Parker’s brief tenure, (he was hired in December of 2012) he has gotten MARTA revenue into the black, increased ridership significantly, greatly improved the organization’s standing among both elected officials and the business community, and brought Clayton County into the system via a vote last November. By stabilizing MARTA’s books, he improved their credit rating to the point where loans and the issuance of bonds can be done in amounts, (and with low enough interest rates) that a number as outlandish as $8 billion may actually seem palatable to Atlantans. At least it might once they realize exactly where that money is coming from.
That radical sum would be the result of a much smaller tax increase – one cent, to be exact. HB 170, the transportation bill that secured $1 billion in transportation funding for the state during the 2015 session, included a provision that would allow counties and municipalities to vote on tacking on a one cent sales tax for transportation projects. MARTA’s hope is to convince local governments to put that measure up for a vote, and then upon passing have them agree to give half of that cent to them. The most difficult pill to swallow out of this is that the tax increase would need to last for 42 years, the duration of the original MARTA sales tax. This process is the hard part, and the one that lobbyists are undoubtedly working to present to legislators and county officials for 2016.
By securing this funding, MARTA would further upgrade its ability to issue bonds up to $4 billion. With funding and a project list solidly in place, various federal agencies would be counted on to match dollar for dollar, bringing the total to that magic $8 billion number.
That absurd sum would be used to give us something resembling the below proposal, an expansion of MARTA’s heavy rail up 400, down into Clayton County, with another line passing through Emory and increased light rail, (read: streetcar) throughout downtown and midtown. (Click the image to zoom in)
Other metro counties could also vote to get into the game. Gwinnett would surely have some hot debates over the issue, while Cobb’s disinterest in all public transportation would likely leave them out, despite the lack of parking at their soon-to-be shiny new ballpark.
In 2016, as it was in 2015, transportation will be among the hottest topics under the gold dome. While the rail-mounted side of that debate in the past has taken a backseat to its four-wheeled cousin, expect the slow rise of MARTA to finally start creeping into the forefront of the conversation.