Robert L. Ashe, chairman MARTA board, speaks to the Rotary Club of Sandy Springs on Oct. 26.

Compromise legislation to allow Atlanta voters to impose a new sales tax to expand MARTA is “the most significant piece of legislation” for the transit system since the original MARTA act, the agency’s chairman says.
“The authority we got will allow us to radically [improve] the way we provide services in the city of Atlanta,” MARTA Chairman Robbie Ashe said. “This will allow us to get off the X-Y axis, providing something more closely resembling a network or a spider web. As a native Atlantan, I am tremendously excited about the opportunity.”
On the final day of the legislative session, state lawmakers approved the proposal that allows Atlanta City Council to call an election in which Atlanta voters could impose the new half-cent sales tax to raise more than $2.5 billion over 41 years for MARTA projects, state and local officials said. If approved, the new tax would raise the overall sales tax in Atlanta to 8.5 cents on the dollar. Atlanta already imposes a 1 percent sales tax for MARTA operations.
MARTA officials have until May 31 to present to Atlanta City Council a preliminary list of transit projects to be financed through the new tax, Ashe said. Projects to be proposed could include new light rail on the BeltLine, other light rail projects in the city, extending existing heavy rail projects or taking a new look at rail stations, he said.
“It’s all pretty fluid at this point in terms of what the projects are,” he said. “We’re taking a look at a wide range of possibilities.”
Ashe said MARTA and Atlanta City Council would approve the project list and decide whether to hold the election in 2016 or 2017. He said MARTA officials want to hold the tax referendum in November. “We don’t want to wait another year,” he said.
Senate Bill 369 began its legislative life as a proposed law dealing with fireworks before it was gutted and reworked as a compromise version of the proposed MARTA tax. MARTA originally asked lawmakers to dedicate to transit half of a proposed 1-cent sales tax for transportation improvements in Fulton and DeKalb counties.
But mayors of some cities in north Fulton County objected, saying they wanted the money to go to roads and bridges. “The north Fulton people have said, ‘We don’t really want rail,’” state Rep. Beth Beskin (R-Atlanta) told members of the North Buckhead Civic Association at their annual meeting March 29.
The compromise legislation split the Atlanta and Fulton sales taxes and would allow voters to impose a .75-cent sales tax for transportation projects in portions of Fulton County outside the city of Atlanta. Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves told the Buckhead Business Association on March 24 that the tax could finance transportation projects spread “from Alpharetta to Palmetto.”
“We’re very, very excited about this,” Eaves said.
The legislation also leaves open the possibility of a future vote for a MARTA sales tax in Fulton County, state and county officials said.

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.