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Georgia House panel passes resurrected MARTA expansion bill

An effort once presumed dead to expand MARTA’s rail system found new life Tuesday when a House committee inserted it in another bill.

Senate Bill 369, which the House Regulated Industries Committee passed as a substitute to a fireworks bill, would allow the city of Atlanta to hold a November referendum to determine whether to levy a half-percent sales tax to fund a MARTA expansion.

The bill would also create two regions within Fulton County, addressing continued differences between north and south Fulton over a MARTA expansion.

Parts of Fulton County outside Atlanta would be allowed to levy a five-year sales tax of 0.75 percent, also depending on the outcome of a referendum. If north Fulton decides to adopt a rail expansion, the region could levy a 0.25 percent tax for funding.

The sales tax could fund about $2.5 billion in new transit projects by one estimate.

House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, has been in charge of the last-minute changes to the legislation. Jones said the MARTA expansion is necessary because Fulton serves as a “crossroads for much of the commerce and many of the commuters in the metropolitan area.”

“There was a desire, in particular by much of the city of Atlanta, to go forward with a significant expansion of MARTA’s infrastructure,” Jones said.

Senate Bill 330, sponsored by state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, was the original MARTA bill lawmakers introduced this legislative session.

The bill would have allowed residents of DeKalb and Fulton counties to vote to increase their existing 1-cent sales tax by a half-cent for additional MARTA financing. The funds would have extended MARTA rail to Alpharetta, Lithonia and through the busy Emory/CDC corridor.

The Senate Rules Committee blocked a vote on the legislation last month after expressing concerns about the plan. One committee member, state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, expressed concerns that SB 330 excluded Cobb and Gwinnett counties by focusing on DeKalb and Fulton.

Leaders in the cities of Johns Creek and Alpharetta also opposed the legislation and said a MARTA expansion could worsen the metro area’s traffic problems instead of improving them.

The Senate’s block on the bill made the the future of transit service in metro Atlanta uncertain because SB 330 was the only long-term transit plan that was introduced.

Since the MARTA expansion is now under SB 369, the legislation is now getting a second chance at becoming law.

Lawmakers who continued pushing the MARTA expansion used the legislative technique of writing the bill’s language into an existing piece of legislation in the House. This could then bring the issue to the chamber for a vote.

Several representatives expressed their support of the legislation and applauded Jones’ efforts in reviving the bill once considered dead.

“I can’t think of anything more important than having a MARTA bill come out of this House and Senate this year and get to the governor,” said state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus. “It’s something that directly affects the quality of life here in this region, as well as the workforce development and employment.”

State Rep. Pat Gardner, D-Atlanta, has been another avid supporter of expanding MARTA in the metro area. She said her constituents are “crying for some help on the congestion” Atlanta has on its streets.

“The expansion of MARTA will help us get around our city,” Gardner said. “I really believe in a regional transit system, and I think this is a great start.”

Gov. Nathan Deal also weighed in on the possibility of letting voters have the final say on the MARTA expansion. He said “those who are willing to financially support” the expansion, meaning voters, “should have the primary say-so over whether they see fit to do so.”

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said in a statement earlier this month that “expanding MARTA is one of the most important things we can do to win the jobs war.”

MARTA officials have also expressed overwhelming support of the legislation.

“MARTA, of course, thinks this is a really great first step in expanding transit options for people throughout the metro area,” said John Bayalis, MARTA’s director of government affairs.

Jones said she hopes SB 369 will get a House vote Wednesday.

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