MARTA expansion bill passes, could generate billions of dollars in new Atlanta transit funding

Beltline transit could be closer to becoming a reality if Deal approves measure

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MARTA rail expansion and transit along the Atlanta Beltline, a possibility that has seemed so far off for oh so long, could be closer to becoming a reality under a bill passed by the General Assembly on the final day of the legislative session.

Senate Bill 369, which awaits Gov. Nathan Deal’s signature or veto, would allow Atlanta voters to decide whether to levy a .5-percent sales tax to fund additional transit projects in the city. The tax could raise an estimated $2.4 billion over the life of the tax until 2057. Those revenues could fund new MARTA lines, infill stations, Beltline transit, and other transit improvements.

If Deal signs off on the bill, expect work to begin immediately on drawing up a list of projects that would be funded by the cash. The Atlanta City Council must call for a referendum no later than May 31. And the city would have to put forward its list by July 31.

To raise those revenues, however, voters have to give the OK in November. If voters reject the ballot measure, the city could call for another in November 2017, when Atlantans head to the polls to pick a new mayor and councilmembers.

The bill also allows areas of Fulton outside Atlanta to levy up to a .75-percent sales tax to fund transportation projects — mostly roads — in their areas. That compromise helped break through a logjam after North Fulton officials opposed a proposal by state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta. Beach’s bill would have allowed voters in Atlanta and Fulton and DeKalb counties to raise the existing MARTA sales tax by .5 percent.

The bill had a big backer and architect: House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Alpharetta, who late in the session inserted the MARTA language in an unrelated Senate Bill dealing with, appropriately enough, fireworks.

“It doesn’t have to be contentious,” Jones said after the Senate’s approval, saying it was important to make progress on the issue before the session ended. “You can craft something in which everyone gets what they wanted.”

Atlanta deserved a chance to vote on the transit expansion because residents had invested in MARTA, the Atlanta Streetcar, and the Beltline, and was the capital city. 

“We need to respect that,” she said.

In a statement, Fulton County Chairman John Eaves said he thanked Jones, Beach, Senate Transportation Chairman Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, and that “Whether you want to see better roads and infrastructure or expanded transit options, SB 369 will be a driving force for improvement, bringing much-needed transportation investments.”

Mayor Kasim Reed was unavailable for comment last night, though we heard he was roaming the halls of the Gold Dome during Sine Die. The question to chew over during the next few months: will Atlantans be willing to raise the sales tax a wee bit more to fund transit?