Plans are well underway for what could make for the largest funding expansion in the history of MARTA. On the last day of the legislative session in March, the Georgia General Assembly approved Senate Bill 369 to allow for a retail sales and use tax by the city of Atlanta. On April 26, Gov. Nathan Deal signed the legislation paving the way for voters decide on a half-percent sales tax increase as early as this November.

According to MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe, SB 369 is the most significant piece of legislation for MARTA since the original MARTA Act more than 40 years ago. Through revenue from the potential tax that would last through 2057, “we expect to raise approximately $2.5 billion to $3 billion,” for expanding metro Atlanta’s public transit system, Ashe added.

“Expansion means increased mobility around the city,” said Ashe. “A more robust system aids in workforce development because employers will have access to potential employees who rely on public transportation from across the region and not only those job seekers who are situated nearby. Studies show that for every dollar invested in transit, we generate about $4 in economic development across the metro area. With more transportation options, and as the town becomes more densely populated, an expansion could provide relief from traffic congestion, while helping residents enjoy their lives without spending as much, or any, time in their cars.”

On May 31, Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority staff plans to present a proposed project list of new rapid transit projects to the Atlanta City Council. These include projects within or serving the geographical area of the city, and may be funded in whole or part by an additional tax.

MARTA plans to convert its entire bus fleet to compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles by the end of 2018.

“Over the summer, MARTA and the City have to come to an agreement about what the final project list will include. There will be several community meetings to get public input to make this process as transparent as possible.” For any potential expansion outside of the city limits, Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties “may still consider their own referendum options during future legislative sessions,” Ashe said.

The deadline for the city to adopt a resolution authorizing a referendum, Ashe said, is June 30 and by the end of July MARTA will submit the final project list.

“We need the Atlanta City Council to decide to put this measure on the ballot for the November 2016 election, and then we need the voters to affirm this legislation” on Nov. 8 — Election Day,” said Ashe.

Atlanta residents now pay a 1 percent MARTA sales tax; an increase would push the sales tax rate to 8.5 percent.

“This bill allows us to go to voters for approval for what will be the largest expansion of MARTA in the system’s history,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed in a statement. “Atlanta’s residents want transit solutions that offer access to full economic and social participation in the life of our city.

Reed added: “By focusing on expanding the MARTA system through light rail along the Atlanta BeltLine and in other parts of our city, we will address last-mile connectivity, making this a transit system that works for everyone, for every day. Atlanta stands alone among major cities in our region with our heavy rail infrastructure. By adding light rail, we will build a system that will sustain our city’s growth for decades to come. I believe the passage of this bill will mark a turning point for our city – a point where we chose to take control of our future.”

— Shandra Hill Smith