A bill filed Monday would lay the groundwork for a huge expansion of MARTA service in DeKalb and Fulton, but it faces a tough climb in the General Assembly and from residents of those counties.
The legislation drafted by Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, would let voters decide whether to pay an additional half-penny sales tax in DeKalb and Fulton counties for MARTA in a referendum. The money could be used to bankroll an $8 billion expansion of the transit system, to include extending heavy rail north to Alpharetta and east to Lithonia and building a new light rail line (think trolley or streetcar) between the Lindbergh and Avondale stations. There might also be enough money left over to fund an expansion of Streetcar service in Atlanta or for some other South Fulton service addition, MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe has said.
MARTA officials have lobbied heavily for the proposed legislation in the months leading up to the session. They want the Legislature to tweak an existing law that allows counties to pass up to a one percent sales tax for transportation projects so that up to a half-percent of the funds can be designated for MARTA.
The transit agency also wants to extend the life of the new tax from the current five-year cap allowed by law to 2057. That would match the life of the existing penny sales tax for MARTA and allow the transit agency a longer period of time to bond against the proceeds.
Beach said that "people are ahead of the politicians on this, people want transit options."
"I’m not raising their taxes," Beach said. "I am giving them the opportunity to invest in transit, which I do believe will move the needle on mobility and reduce congestion. I think it’s a good thing."
The bill faces opposition from some conservatives in the Legislature like Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, said North Fulton residents overwhelmingly don't want heavy rail in their backyard.
"It's not that people are anti-transit," Albers said. "They are smart, and they are educated and they know that billions of dollars to bring something to our community that will not do anything to alleviate traffic -- in fact it will increase traffic, and will take a decade to get there -- makes no sense."
If state lawmakers pass the bill, county commissioners in DeKalb and Fulton would have to vote to allow the referendum to move forward. MARTA would also have to provide in advance of the referendum a specific list outlining which projects it would provide in each county, should the tax be approved.
The bill went into the hopper Monday and is expected to be assigned a number Tuesday.
The question for voters would appear on ballots as follows: