Atlanta can now pursue a $2.5B MARTA transit expansion

Passengers board a southbound train at Dunwoody MARTA station. Tom Sabulis/TSABULIS@AJC.COM

Passengers board a southbound train at Dunwoody MARTA station. Tom Sabulis/TSABULIS@AJC.COM

Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday signed a measure into law that allows the city of Atlanta to pursue a $2.5 billion expansion of MARTA that’s likely to include a light rail system along the Beltline.

A previous version of the legislation, Senate Bill 369, was halted in its tracks earlier this year after a bruising battle that divided urban and suburban lawmakers. But it won an improbable victory on the last day of the legislative session after a late compromise was struck.

The proposal that emerged allows the city of Atlanta to set a referendum for a half-percent sales tax increase aimed at transit initiatives. MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe has said the “lion’s share” would likely fund transit on the Beltline.

To placate reluctant Republicans, it exempted DeKalb County and gives Fulton County lawmakers the option to pursue a 0.25 percent sales tax for transit in the future. For now, it allows Fulton commissioners to press ahead with plans for a five-year 0.75 percent sales tax referendum this November to pay for road improvements.

House Speaker pro tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, seated next to Todd Long, Fulton County Chief Operating Officer, presents a compromise on MARTA’s effort to expand its rail system. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

State Rep. Jan Jones. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

“It was a win-win for Fulton County,” said House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, a Milton Republican who brokered the agreement. “In north and south Fulton, people want to be able to get to work primarily on congested roads in their cars. They may also want transit opportunities, but their first priority is clogged roads.”

The earlier version included both Fulton and DeKalb and would have raised as much as $8 billion to expand MARTA in three directions. Still, transit advocates hailed Tuesday’s bill signing as a much-needed victory – and another step toward a more ambitious overhaul.

“The groundwork has been set for a comprehensive transit bill so we can come back in 2017,” said state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, who was on hand at Deal’s bill signing ceremony.

Residents of Atlanta already pay a 1 percent MARTA sales tax. The increase would bump the sales tax rate in the city to 8.5 percent from 8 percent. Projected revenue from the tax, which would last through 2057, would be about $2.5 billion.

First, though, the City Council would have to approve a proposed project list and schedule a referendum for November 2016 or 2017. Then, a majority of voters would have to endorse the plan.

Smyre said he hopes it’s just the start of a larger legislative debate on transit.

“The state now has a huge stake in the process and MARTA and transit are being talked about in a comprehensive manner,” he said. “For many years, we fought for transit and we were unsuccessful.”

He added: “I’ve been here long enough to know that sometimes baby steps are huge steps.”

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Gov. Nathan Deal signed dozens of other proposals into law on Tuesday. Here’s a briefing on several of the more significant measures:

MARTA expansion: Senate Bill 369 allows the city of Atlanta to set a referendum for a half-percent sales tax increase aimed at transit initiatives. In all, projected revenue for the tax would raise an estimated $2.5 billion through 2057, allowing MARTA to begin an expansion of light rail along the Beltline.

Rape kit. House Bill 827 requires police to find and count untested sexual assault evidence. It was introduced after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation last year that found more than 1,400 kits went untested at Grady Memorial Hospital.

Anti-abortion centers: Senate Bill 308 allows the state to funnel state grants toward “pregnancy resource centers” to discourage women from getting abortions. An estimated 70 centers could qualify for the grant. Lawmakers set aside $2 million for the program, though Deal hasn’t signed the budget yet.

Rural health: Senate Bill 258 allows donors to rural hospitals to receive a tax break so long as the contributions are used for healthcare purposes. The credits are capped at $50 million and seen as a way to boost the struggling network of rural healthcare facilities around the state.

Kinship care: House Bill 962 designates a kinship care enforcement administrator to help direct services to children living with grandparents or other kin. It also creates a separate website specifically for caregivers to apply for benefits for kids in their care.

Animal abuse: Senate Bill 356 requires anyone whose animals are seized during an investigation on animal cruelty should pay for their care while the criminal case is prosecuted.

Landfill notification: House Bill 1028 requires solid waste landfill owners to alert local officials if anything toxic – anything “likely to pose a danger to human health” — spills from their dumps. The bill was prompted by toxic coal ash leaching into the groundwater at a landfill near Jesup that local officials learned about after an AJC investigation.

 


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