You’ve got to admit, if you’re going to stick it to MARTA, the longtime target of conservative pols, then Johns Creek City Councilman Bob Gray played this one perfectly.
Gray, who has an arm full of prestigious college degrees and business successes, sprang a resolution on his fellow officials in a recent council meeting, a document with a pile of Whereases that made the transit agency look like a Commie plot.
Simply put, the resolution said “Hell No!” to an added half-cent sales tax to expand MARTA’s rail line up Ga. 400. Such an expansion would increase the density of development, strain schools, erode residential character, clog roads with nonresidents and further tax Johns Creek citizens for something they don’t use, it said.
The only Whereas left out was “Hey, MARTA, your mother is ugly.”
Other council members were surprised by the suddenness and urgency of the measure and urged Gray to hold off so the public could weigh in. They worried about things like transparency in government, although they were sure to note they agreed with the sentiment.
Mayor Mike Bodker called the resolution “potentially inflammatory” and even inaccurate.
But Gray was having no pussyfooting. He knows Johns Creekians want nothing to do with MARTA. So why bother with the charade of asking them?
“If it’s a bit inflammatory, I’m very OK with that,” Gray said. “I think it embellishes the delivery of the message, and makes it very unambiguous what our meaning is behind it.”
It’s the era of Donald Trump with politics as an extension of professional wrestling. Did Ric “The Nature Boy” Flair ever equivocate?
I called on Friday to ask Gray to expound on his feelings, but he was Christmas tree shopping.
Bodker, who is president of the Georgia Municipal Association and considers himself “a regional mayor,” admits he and the council got “a little boxed in” by the wily Gray. “If we had voted ‘no’ it would have looked like we didn’t support the underlying issue,” he said.
The mayor has advocated citifying the comfortably suburban Johns Creek with a 728-acre redevelopment around Technology Park called “The District.” The plan calls for a grid of streets, townhomes, offices, restaurants, canal walkways and millennials on $1,500 bikes and would be the destination for an otherwise pleasant community without one. The higher density and increased commercial area would expand the city tax base, which is 81 percent residential. By comparison, neighboring Alpharetta is 53 percent commercial/industrial.
The city calls The District a “bold” step into the future. And one might suspect, transit might fit in nicely. But Johns Creek politicians say now is not the time to be bold when it comes to MARTA. In fact there aren’t even MARTA bus stops in the city. Bodker says the agency never asked.
Bodker acknowledges that The District would take years, even decades, to unfold. But MARTA will not help move people along in current traffic jams, he said. Area residents have been paying a 1-cent sales tax for decades and have seen “zero direct benefit,” he said.
I asked him whether a new half-cent tax might help alleviate that? People in South Fulton and Atlanta would be paying for a northern spur they’d rarely ride. I mean, that has to make you smile a bit, right?
No, he said, the added half-cent tax, would be put into effect for another 42 years, would also build a couple lines in DeKalb County and would, once again, provide little direct benefit to Johns Creek residents. The Ga. 400 rail extension up to neighboring Alpharetta would be just a couple miles from Johns Creek, but according to JC pols that might as well be 10 miles because of congestion.
Bodker said if another penny sales tax is added on, then all revenue should be proportionally allotted to the local jurisdictions to fix local problems, instead of half of it being spirited away by MARTA.
“Long term, transit is the only solution to solve the problem,” he admits. “But we need to make a dent in traffic congestion today. You have to win (voters) hearts and minds by showing a change” before hitting them up for a major overhaul.
Then would come time for an “honest conversation” about creating density on both sides of the rail, where people are coming from and where they are going to. That has been Atlanta’s problem: you have people coming from nowhere specific and going everywhere.
The MARTA issue is not simply a conservative/liberal divide. Republican leaders like state Sen. Brandon Beach and Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul are all in on a transit line heading north to Alpharetta.
Paul, former head of the Georgia GOP, said he would have left his options open as far as MARTA goes.
“To close the door on opportunity that is 20 years away is not wise policy,” Paul said. “Today, you can’t have a credible business plan without a transit option. We’ve got to stop looking short-term.”
Beach, who is also CEO of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, once made a video of the dysfuntionality of the regional transit system by taking public transportation from Kennesaw State University to the Gwinnett Area. The journey meant riding on three transit systems — Cobb County Transit, MARTA and Gwinnett’s — and took four hours.
“I think the residents want to happen,” Beach said of added transit. “I think the people are ahead of the politicians on this. The politicians are a little scared.”
He added that a northern extension “would benefit the whole area. If we want to be a world-class city we need a regional system.”
As to Councilman Gray’s contention that Johns Creek does not want MARTA, well, the opposition is certainly there, but it isn’t universal. Residents like Sherry Heyl, who moved to what is now Johns Creek just in time to get her older son into the area’s top-notch schools.
She was angry to hear of the council’s resolution and contacted Gray to ask for a meeting and let him know MARTA has support. She says more than 100 others have contacted her.
The resolution “represented Johns Creek very poorly,” Heyl said. “People think we live in gated communities and don’t want racial minorities. I’ve lived here since 1999 and I’m tired of hearing that. We’re very diverse.”
Johns Creek has a terrific sense of community, she said. “It’s a place where people go to send their kids to school and when they are raised, they move out.”
The Heyls have four years until her youngest is in college.