As a new state authority compiles various transit wish-lists into metro-wide, $27 billion plan, the big question is where it will find the money.
“It’s a great plan. How do you pay for it?” said Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul at an Oct. 21 meeting where the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority gave an overview of how it is compiling the project lists from various local jurisdictions.
Authority officials at the meeting, held at Sandy Springs City Hall as part of a series around the metro area, floated a couple of ideas: state bonds and a sales tax of up to 1% for up to 30 years.
The new authority is coordinating service and expansion of 10 transit systems in 13 metro Atlanta counties. One goal is to seek funding in a more coordinated way.
The “ATL Regional Transit Plan” on track for a vote by the authority’s board in December is essentially a list of all locally approved transit projects, with some cost-benefit analysis, evaluation and prioritization. No projects are being added or removed by the authority.
The plan includes all of the projects submitted by DeKalb and Fulton counties following earlier public processes. Perhaps the biggest projects in those plans are a call for bus rapid transit on Ga. 400 and I-285.
MARTA’s major service expansion within the city of Atlanta is already proceeding under its own sales tax, but the authority’s plan includes some related projects, such as the Clifton Corridor rail line between Lindbergh Center and Emory University.
The authority’s Oct. 21 meeting in Sandy Springs, attended by about 16 people, including Dunwoody City Councilmembers Terry Nall and Jim Riticher. It was part of a series of open houses where it is presenting a broad overview of its compilation process. The presentation included large infographic panels that did not contain much information about how individual projects might be prioritized. Public comment is welcome, officials say, but also doesn’t mean much, because no projects will be changed, removed or added in the process.
“No, we’re not going to make any changes, because we can’t,” said authority spokesperson Scheree Rawles. She said any comments will be given to the authority’s board and to local agencies behind specific projects.
The infographics are not yet available on the authority’s website in an attempt to encourage people to come to the meetings instead, Rawles said. However, they will be posted eventually, along with a “webinar,” she said.
The project list tallies up the cost of projects, but there is variation in how solid those numbers are. Rawles said the definition of “cost” depends on what local agencies submitted to the authority. “We asked for total capital [costs] and operations for 20 years,” she said.
The big question for public input to come is about money in a plan that essentially sums up a multibillion-dollar, multi-decade-long backlog in transit projects in a metro area with ever-increasing population and traffic.
Paul said any method would be challenging and noted that expense concerns already forced Fulton County’s plan to include buses rather than MARTA rail running along Ga. 400. Bonds still need a revenue stream to pay them off, he said, and taxes aren’t an easy sell, either.
“You can’t rely on sales taxes to fund everything, and property taxes are political dynamite,” Paul said.
But he also said that metro Atlanta has to find a way to build transit, even though it will take many years and a lot of money to build.
“I’m never going to ride on BRT on 285 and 400,” said the 67-year-old mayor. But residents of today, he said, need to “step up and do the right thing for our children and grandchildren” to keep metro Atlanta vibrant.
For more information, see the authority’s website here.