Spinning our Wheels

Spinning our Wheels is a commuting blog about the challenges of getting around Atlanta by car, bus, MARTA, bicycles and on foot written by transportation reporter David Wickert

MARTA expansion bill clears House

A major MARTA expansion proposal that was crippled by legislative maneuvering just weeks ago took a giant leap forward on Wednesday.

The state House passed Senate Bill 369 by a vote of 159-4 as an alternative to a more sweeping bill that stalled earlier this session. SB 369 carves Fulton County into two districts, thus allowing the city of Atlanta -- but not the rest of Fulton -- to levy a half-percent sales tax if voters approve the idea in a referendum.

Fulton County,  by contrast, could proceed with a referendum this year for up to a .75 percent sales tax for road improvements, and still preserve the option to pursue up to a .25 percent sales tax for transit in the future.

DeKalb County was excluded from the measure, but MARTA could always come back next year to lobby for a ballot initiative there.

"I’m just so thrilled and so happy," said state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, who joined with Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, in shepherding through the bipartisan effort. "Is this the full deck that I would have liked? No, it’s not. But to me this is a major, major step in the right direction."

The money from the half-percent sales tax hike in Atlanta, if voters approve it,  could be used to finance about $2.5 billion for transit projects within the city. The projects could include things like improved local bus service, adding streetcars along the Beltline, building infill MARTA stations or extending the existing rail. The project list would be selected with input from Atlanta City Council at least four months before the public vote.

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The multibillion-dollar plan is still a downsizing of MARTA's initial dream to accomplish an $8 billion expansion with a broader reach. That plan would have required a sales tax increase in Fulton and DeKalb counties also.

It would have funded three major rail expansion projects: a heavy-rail extension north along Ga. 400 to Windward Parkway in Alpharetta, a heavy-rail extension east along I-20 to the Mall at Stonecrest in Lithonia and a light-rail line connecting the Lindbergh and Avondale stations through the busy CDC/Emory area.

Jones, the Milton Republican, took charge of the effort to let Atlanta move forward with a transit funding initiative, which had stalled Feb. 29 after failing to pass the Senate by Crossover Day (the day by which all legislation must pass from one chamber to the other to have a good chance of passing).

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The earlier measure failed because elected officials across Atlanta's Northern Arc voiced opposition. The latest version of the bill allows more local control, said Jones.

"This bill involves a compromise that I believe is ripe for today," she said. "It does respect the differing expectations, priorities, manner and timing of the local people and communities."

If approved, the life of the proposed MARTA sales tax increase would be through 2057, to match the life span of the existing 1 percent MARTA tax and enable the transit agency to issue long-term bonds to finance expansion projects.

With only two days left in the legislative session, the bill will next go to the Senate for a vote. The earliest possible vote would occur Tuesday. Otherwise, it will be crammed into a flurry of bills that have to pass on Thursday or be mothballed.

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