The Sandy Springs City Council favors seeking a renewal of a transportation-funding sales tax on the November ballot — but without including a long-awaited bus rapid transit service on Ga. 400 and other corridors.

A current five-year transportation special local-option sales tax (TSPLOST) is set to expire in March 2022. Without a renewal, the city would have to forgo or find other money for future projects or finishing some major ones on the current TSPLOST list, including a massive widening of part of Hammond Drive.

The council and Mayor Rusty Paul discussed the options in a non-voting work session Jan. 19.

Several councilmembers said highways and local streets remain relatively empty without traffic jams because of the pandemic. Coupled with many businesses planning to continue telework for a significant portion of their employees’ time, selling voters on adding the bus rapid transit (BRT) to a referendum would be challenging, they said.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul.

TSPLOST is a Fulton County sales tax to fund transportation improvements within the participating cities. Voters approved the current TSPLOST in a referendum in November 2016, with collection of the 0.75 percent (3/4 of a cent) sales tax beginning in April 2017 for projects that were designated on the ballot.

The county administration is now considering possibilities for a new TSPLOST. One option would fund MARTA-operated BRT in North Fulton using Ga. 400 toll lanes already funded and scheduled for construction by the Georgia Department of Transportation. The BRT would run between North Springs MARTA Station in Sandy Springs and Windward Parkway in Alpharetta, with three specialty BRT stations built along that route. The TSPLOST money would fund construction of those stations and comparable stations in a South Fulton Parkway BRT route connecting to the Airport MARTA Station.

In Sandy Springs, the current TSPLOST included funding for design and right-of-way acquisition for the Hammond Drive widening project west of Ga. 400 to Roswell Road. But road construction funding was not included. The city would need to decide what projects to include in another TSPLOST based on anticipated funding. The Hammond Drive project would need to be put on that list and the referendum would need voter approval from all of Fulton County excluding Atlanta, or the city would have to find another funding source for the estimated $34 million construction cost.

Similarly, if the TSPLOST referendum fails or if it does not include an option providing transit funding, BRT will be delayed until another source of local funding is found.

“We don’t know the impact of work at home initiatives even beyond COVID. But we’re talking with clients about perhaps permanently reducing their in-office work staff by 20%,” said Councilmember Chris Burnett. “And so that each employee gets one day to work at home a week, even after COVID is gone. And you can imagine a reduction of 20% per day and cars on our roads.”

He called adding transit to TSPLOST a tough sell for voters.

A sore point for local voters is not knowing how the city has used funds from the existing TSPLOST, Councilmember Andy Bauman said. Many projects are still in design stages and have not started construction.

TSPLOST options

In a meeting with mayors on Jan. 8, county officials asked them to determine which TSPLOST option their city councils would support. The county proposed three options. The first continues the sales tax at its current level of 0.75%, which they estimate would generate approximately $500 million over five years for 13 cities (excepting Atlanta, which has its own TSPLOST). Sandy Springs would again get approximately 20% of the total, based on its population.

The second option would retain the 0.75% tax rate but split it between BRT and the cities’ own transportation projects. That effectively lowers the share for the cities to $300 million, with the other $200 million designated for BRT.

The third option would raise the TSPLOST to one penny (1%). The cities would keep the current funding levels, with the increase in the tax raising collections to fund the $200 million needed for BRT project construction.

Since a tight timeline exists to put the TSPLOST referendum on the November ballot, the county wants an answer from the cities by their next joint meeting on Feb. 8.

Transit funding hopes

Paul said some North Fulton mayors feared that putting a TSPLOST on the same ballot as some 2022 municipal elections would make transportation dominate the campaigns. He said they did not want to lose a year’s worth of funding. And there was not support for the BRT option, Paul reported.

“I don’t think there’s support among the mayors either north or south [Fulton] to include transit in the next TSPLOST,” Paul said.

Paul said he thinks the cities are missing an opportunity to leverage local funds for federal dollars under the new administration of President Biden, which proposed a $1 trillion infrastructure initiative even before the Jan. 20 inauguration.

Councilmember John Paulson said he would hate to pass up on possible federal funding at this early stage.

The state put $100 million into construction of toll lanes on Ga. 400 and the exit ramps leading to the three proposed BRT stations. It also funded lanes and ramps for the BRT line planned along South Fulton Parkway to the Airport MARTA Station.

Another $200 million is needed to construct the BRT stations in North and South Fulton. Failure to provide that funding will delay the start of BRT.

“MARTA remains committed to partnering with Fulton County and its cities to deliver on their transit needs as outlined in the Fulton County Transit Master Plan as funding allows,” said Stephany Fisher, a MARTA spokesperson. “We have made significant investments in the planning of bus rapid transit projects on Ga. 400 and South Fulton Parkway, but a new local funding commitment is required for construction.”

She said MARTA is confident ridership will increase when metro Atlanta sees the return of large-scale gatherings and business and leisure travel, and employees returning to the office.

GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry, who is a MARTA board member, said in a Jan. 20 Georgia General Assembly budget hearing that traffic on rural routes has returned to normal and urban highway traffic is close to normal levels.

The city has had discussions with the cities in the counties along the northern rim of I-285. From Tucker to Smyrna, there’s almost universal support that any future transit needs to be BRT, Paul said, which is cheaper than rail.

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst and city staff are in those discussions about a northern I-285 centered BRT line, which would enable residents to hop on a bus and go to a Braves game without having to drive in heavy traffic.

“We know this pandemic is going to come to an end,” Ernst said. “People will need to be able to move rapidly through the region.”

BRT is the one project that enables that, he said.

He also referenced Biden’s commitment to a major infrastructure initiative that emphasizes transit.

Nearly a year ago, the first COVID-19 case was recorded in the state. Before then it was clear that transit is deeply needed in Atlanta, Ernst said. More people will telework.

“But that doesn’t mean that you don’t need transit,” he said. “It’s an affordability issue, it’s a job issue. It’s an equity issue,” Ernst said. It helps people realize upward mobility.

“Helping people being able to get to jobs for a lower cost than a car gives them more income and gives them more opportunities to advance,” he said.