Georgia Legislature: General Assembly approves transit expansion bill

11:49 p.m. update: A bill that could pave the way for a dramatic expansion of mass transit in metro Atlanta has passed the General Assembly.

The Senate approved House Bill 930 by a vote of 48-6. The House approved the measure by a vote of 155-19.

The bill now goes to the desk of Gov. Nathan Deal, who had endorsed the measure.

11:10 p.m. update: The House of Representatives has approved HB 930, the transit expansion bill. The bill now awaits a final vote in the Senate.

8:50 p.m. update: The transit conference committee Thursday night formally signed an agreement that would pave the way for transit expansions in Gwinnett, Cobb and Fulton counties and much of the rest of metro Atlanta. 

House Bill 930 now goes to the House and Senate for approval. 

The final bill largely follows the bill as it passed the House. It would: 

*Allow 13 metro Atlanta counties to impose sales taxes of up to 1 percent for mass transit. Fulton County, which already has a .75-percent tax for road and bridge construction, plus the existing 1 percent MARTA tax, would be limited to a .2 percent sales tax. 

*Creates a regional board to oversee transit funding and construction. The board would have the final say over the project lists that counties submit to voters. The idea is to coordinate transit projects across county lines.

*Allows Gwinnett County to hold a vote on joining MARTA this year. 

* Authorizes a special transit district in Cobb County. The district could ask voters to approve a transit expansion – one that could be paid for with any county revenue sources. 

The district’s boundaries would be drawn by a committee consisting of county commissioners and state lawmakers representing the county. The committee must finish its work in 2019 – under the law, it will be disbanded on Dec. 1 of that year.

*The final version of the bill removed two potential sources of revenue: an airport concessions tax and a 50-cent fee on all rides for hire like taxis, limousines and ride-sharing services.

Original post: House and Senate negotiators have reached an agreement on final legislation that could lead to a dramatic expansion of mass transit in metro Atlanta.

The agreement was confirmed by Kaleb McMichen, a spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston. He did not disclose the details of the agreement but said a final bill is being drafted with just a few hours left before the General Assembly adjourns.

“Our goal now is to make the deadline,” McMichen told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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Each chamber has approved its own version of the legislation and appointed members to a conference committee to hash out the differences. Twice this week the committee announced public meetings, only to cancel them. The committee is scheduled to try again at 8 p.m.

But negotiations have continued behind the scenes.

As they passed their respective chambers, House Bill 930 and Senate Bill 386 would allow 13 metro Atlanta counties to impose new sales taxes for transit expansion, if their voters approve them. Such referendums could pump hundreds of millions of dollars into new transit lines across the region.

The state would add $100 million in bonds for transit expansion under a 2019 budget that already has passed the General Assembly. However, that money is contingent upon the passage of the transit legislation under negotiation.

Taken together, the initiatives could spark the biggest transit expansion in metro Atlanta since MARTA finished its existing passenger rail system in 2000.

Both bills also would create a new board to oversee transit funding and construction in the Atlanta region. The board would have the final say over any project list that counties send to voters. The idea is to better coordinate transit service across county lines.

The composition of the board has reportedly been a sticking point in negotiations. Under the Senate bill, the new board would become part of the existing Georgia Regional Transportation Authority. The House bill would essentially replace the GRTA with the new board.

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