MARTA, Fulton kindly request your pennies

County leans toward building roads, but transit agency has big dreams

MARTA and Fulton County are looking to hit up voters next year for cash to pay for transportation projects. But big transit expansion depend on MARTA getting approval from the state Legislature and partnership from Fulton and DeKalb counties. And Fulton is leaning toward spending whatever cash it can generate on roads.

MARTA wants to use revenues from a transportation sales tax on heavy rail extensions to the north and east, bus rapid transit along I-20 East, and a light-rail connection through the "Clifton Corridor."

Fulton cities and county officials have been meeting for months — and will meet again next month — to finalize their pitch to voters. Short-term projects tend to be relatively modest such as road or intersection improvements measured in the millions of dollars.

To pay for the projects, officials appear to be leaning toward a five-year, one-cent tax. Indeed, a new state law limits their ask in this case to five years at a time.

But MARTA is talking about needing decades. And about $8 billion. The transit agency wants to team up with Fulton and DeKalb and ask voters there to approve a new penny sales tax that would last through 2057, matching the lifespan of the sales tax that Fulton and DeKalb shoppers have long been paying. Half of the revenues generated by that new sales tax would go to MARTA, which would leverage it to help bankroll its expansion project. The other half would go to Fulton and DeKalb to spend on any kind of transportation projects they like.

Commissioner Marvin Arrington Jr., who represents South Fulton, where heavy rail is not an option now or in the future. He says he supports MARTA and mass transit, but that half a penny over five years — which is the maximum timeframe Fulton can ask for — doesn't seem to be the vehicle to carry it.

"I don't think that it is one or the other," Arrington says. "In my mind we need both. And I think MARTA should get its fair share. But I don't think MARTA's fair share in South Fulton is 50 percent of the money."

The commissioner says he thinks there could be some middle ground if the tax would be in place for more like 20 or 40 years, not five.

But what MARTA would need is not just halfsies with Fulton and DeKalb on a penny, but also approval from the state Legislature early next year for a decades-long tax. The Gold Dome might not be ready to OK an odd grouping: an agency and two counties coming together to collect a tax for that long a time. 

"MARTA's interest in the project list is to ensure that its three expansion projects are included," MARTA spokesman Lyle Harris says. "In order for that to happen, the MARTA Act must be changed with respect to the half-penny of the T-SPLOST being directed to fund those projects and to extend the duration of that half-penny."

As for Atlanta, Mayor Kasim Reed "believes it is still very early in the process to determine the best approach," his spokeswoman Anne Torres says in a written statement. "At this time, we don't believe there is a need to engage because both strategies are still in their infancy."

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