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Jim GallowayJim Galloway

Growing MARTA: A gaffe, and perhaps a game-changing poll

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A MARTA train makes its way north past Ga. 400 traffic near Sandy Springs on a typical afternoon rush hour. Ben Gray, bgray@ajc.com

A MARTA train makes its way north past Ga. 400 traffic near Sandy Springs on a typical afternoon rush hour. Ben Gray, bgray@ajc.com

A blunder will shape this week’s state Capitol debut of an effort to allow MARTA to greatly expand its rail operation.

The gaffe might complicate the issue, but it won’t sink it.

Early last week, state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, introduced Senate Bill 313. The measure would allow the transit agency to ask voters for a long-term, half-penny sales tax that would finance new commuter rail lines up through north Fulton County, and east into DeKalb County’s Emory University complex.

No one has raised a hand to claim responsibility, but the bill was immediately sent to the wrong address. Its authors had intended that it should go to the friendly environs of the Senate Transportation Committee, chaired by Tommie Williams, R-Lyons.

Who had already put his name to the bill.

Instead, SB 313 was sent to the Senate State and Local Government Operations Committee, chaired by John Albers, R-Roswell. Albers is a rail skeptic.

Beach asked for his bill back. But Albers has called “finders keepers.”

“It should be there. It’s something that was advertised locally. It only impacts three counties,” Albers said.

So late last week, Senator Beach introduced a second bill, SB 330. It is the near twin of SB 313. The replacement bill is now safely lodged with the Senate Transportation Committee.

The result is that two nearly identical MARTA bills could be heard by two separate Senate committees on Tuesday, before two opposing audiences.

Here’s the complicated crux of what both panels would be dealing with: Last year’s HB 170 was intended to raise nearly $1 billion per year for road and bridge repair. The legislation, signed into law, said nice things about transit, but included no significant funding.

However, HB 170 does allow counties to levy – if voters approve — a one percent, five-year sales tax for any transportation needs. In Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties, MARTA wants half of that penny tax. But the transit agency wants the tax extended over several decades – the same lifespan as the existing MARTA sales tax.

Only then could proceeds be used to finance the bonds for the $8 billion rail expansion. Construction could take a decade or more to complete – but the project would change the face of metro Atlanta.

Albers’ committee will meet at 2 p.m. Tuesday. The Roswell senator says he may hold a second hearing as well. Albers is likely to highlight opposition to the MARTA expansion already expressed by city officials in Johns Creek, Milton, and Alpharetta.

“I’m looking for real meaningful solutions so we can help people in the very short term,” Albers said. “Because to have something that may, in 12 or 15 years, benefit someone isn’t really helping that mom or dad trying to get to work, or get their kids to soccer practice.”

Albers said residents in his area are fearful that a MARTA rail line could actually increase traffic congestion, by drawing in commuters from outlying areas.

A Senate Transportation Committee has been scheduled for later that afternoon. As of late Friday, no agenda had been made public, but there’s a strong possibility that SB 330, the other MARTA twin, will be a topic of conversation.

If so, the Metro Atlanta Chamber – a MARTA ally – will be there to argue that, contrary to what Albers and some others have asserted, commuters who ply a clogged Ga. 400 on a daily basis do want alternative ways to get to and from work.

Metro officials will make public an October poll of registered voters in DeKalb and Fulton, which shows that 73 percent — 58 percent among Republicans — favor expansion of MARTA. Pollster John McLaughlin told me that the approval holds up even when only north Fulton responses are tallied.

Given the defeat of the regional TSPLOST in 2012, chamber officials knew they had to walk into this debate with fresh ammunition. “After the TSPLOST, we really wanted to understand the appetite of the voters,” said Katie Kirkpatrick, chief policy officer for the metro chamber.
Seventy-one percent of those polled would favor a referendum to decide the matter, which is no surprise.

The news is in this finding: 49 percent of Fulton and DeKalb voters polled – 46 percent in Fulton – say they would vote against any penny sales tax referendum for transportation that didn’t consider funding for commuter rail.

“I think what we found is that, lacking the opportunity to vote to expand transit, I don’t think it’s likely that voters will approve a roads-only referendum,” said Dave Williams, the chamber’s vice president for governmental affairs.

Should this finding hold up, it would be a watershed moment for transportation politics in Georgia. Yes, commuter-rail skeptics could veto MARTA expansion and continue to push roads-only solutions in Fulton and DeKalb counties. But commuter-rail enthusiasts now may have enough political clout to veto the initiatives of the roads-only crowd, too.

Without seeing the poll, Albers — the rail skeptic – acknowledged the shifting situation. “Imagine this balloon, if you will, rising with the potential of doing something. And right now, there’s a thumbtack with MARTA that can pop that balloon,” the Roswell lawmaker said. “Let this sail and get going, and then we’ll get something that’s really meaningful.”

However you characterize it, we may have just entered a period of mutually assured destruction when it comes to transportation. Or, if we choose, mutually assured construction. As any veteran of the Cold War would tell you, that’s a prime climate for deal-making.

You can scroll through the top lines of the Metro Atlanta Chamber poll here:

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