Rejection by most Fulton County mayors of sales-tax money for bus rapid transit to operate on future toll lanes on Ga. 400 and other highways could jeopardize funding for the projects, representatives of major state agencies say. The issue has Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul frustrated that the region doesn’t have a unified funding plan.

A delay or loss of BRT would mean the state’s controversial plan to add toll lanes on Ga. 400 and I-285 would not have public transit as a mitigation feature. For Sandy Springs, where MARTA rail expansion has received local support but BRT was accepted as a cheaper alternative, it would be a further step back from transit options.

MARTA plans for 12 miles of bus rapid transit between North Springs Station and Windward Parkway. (Special)

Representatives from MARTA, the Georgia Department of Transportation and the State Road and Tollway Authority warned during a joint virtual meeting of Fulton’s mayors and the Board of Commissioners on Feb. 5 that without a local funding source from the cities and county, the chance for federal funding or additional state dollars will be lost.

The transit and transportation agency leaders pleaded for them to at least add transit to one of the projects on a transportation special local-option sales tax (TSPLOST) referendum expected to be placed on the ballot in November.

MARTA General Manager Jeff Parker said the transit agency has agreed to pay for operations and maintenance of the BRT lines once they are completed. That leaves the cities and county with funding construction of BRT stations. The Biden administration may provide transit funds for projects that provide local matching funds.

Paul said he had no problem with asking city residents to approve the small sales tax hike to provide funding for the BRT plans. Transit has been popular in the city. Development related to a proposed MARTA Red Line extension through the Northridge Road area is part of the city’s Next Ten Comprehensive Plan. And the cities and county added BRT to the Fulton Transportation Master Plan three years ago.  

“So there’s not a huge benefit to citizens of Sandy Springs, but we realized we are part of the whole and I think we’d be willing to support that,” he said.

GDOT and MARTA have committed to a plan to add BRT to toll lanes that would be built on Ga. 400 between North Springs Station in Sandy Springs and the Windward Park and Ride lot in Alpharetta. Tentative discussions are underway for that service to plug into similar BRT service on I-285. Another BRT concept is for Roosevelt Highway and Ga. 39 in South Fulton. 

The current Fulton funding discussions include the Ga. 400 and South Fulton BRT concepts.

GDOT is authorized to spend only a small percentage of its funding on transit, with the majority dedicated to roads and bridges, said spokesperson Natalie Dale.

The North Fulton BRT line along Ga. 400 received $100 million in funding through the state because it was moving forward on its managed lanes project for the highway, said SRTA Executive Director Chris Tomlinson. It would fund access to other stations on the BRT lines via ramps. Local funds would be needed to complete the other BRT stations or at least provide a match for potential federal funding.

An east-west BRT line using managed lanes on the northern arc of I-285 and using Ga. 400 to connect with the North Springs Station would run from Tucker to Smyrna. But as his fellow mayors in Fulton County debate BRT funding for both ends of the county, Paul is meeting with city leaders to discuss this BRT line that lacks funding at this point. With no unified transit funding plan, Sandy Springs residents could be asked to increase their sales tax even more to fund the east-west BRT line.

He called Sandy Springs the linchpin because the two BRT lines would meet there.

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% sales tax beginning in April 2017 for projects that were designated on the ballot. That sales tax expires in April 2022 unless another referendum gets approved by voters.

Most of the cities favored keeping the TSPLOST at its current level to assure they receive the same levels of revenue as they have for the past four years.

Fulton Board of Commissioners Chair Rob Pitts said the TSPLOST referendum timeline to get it placed before voters on the November ballot requires cities to develop their project lists in May, with an official meeting between mayors and the commission in July. After an intergovernmental agreement is reached between all cities and the county, a resolution for the referendum must be sent to the elections superintendent no later than Aug. 2 to get it on the ballot.

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

Sales tax in Fulton County – including Sandy Springs – already includes 1% for MARTA. The BRT funding proposal asked for a 0.2% hike in the sales tax. If the east-west BRT line is approved, city residents could be asked for another sales tax hike.

Paul said he can’t ask his City Council and city residents to do that, but said he understood GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry’s point that the cities and county must deal with what it has.

“I think I can get my council to go along with the transit piece if there’s a rational plan to connect all this stuff together,” Paul said. “And that’s what I see is missing. So somebody explain to me how I overcome this dilemma.”

McMurry told Paul that Sandy Springs is seeing the largest transportation investment in the state’s history with the reconstruction of the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange, which is expected to finish this year and to be followed by the toll lanes projects.

“Those investments are building the guideway, if you will, for this potential transit,” he said.

In 2018, $100 million was reserved in state bonds for transit, which later was dedicated to the Ga. 400 toll lanes project because it was moving forward on its managed lanes project for the highway, said SRTA Executive Director Chris Tomlinson. He said the state expects to pick a project developer by the third quarter of this year, with completion by the end of 2026.

“The federal government is going to require that there’s a way to operate and maintain in the long run any project that they’re going to bring dollars to. So MARTA recognized that we could afford that within the 1-cent sales tax,” Parker said.

“We’re building that infrastructure that reduces the overall cost if you try to do this as, quote, standalone transit projects,” McMurry said.

SRTA’s Chris Tomlinson said the new Biden administration’s plans may align with Fulton County’s funding needs. GDOT handles distribution and oversight of the Federal Transit Administration grants from the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act.

“They want to see sustainable transportation investments and they want to tackle in the first year of the administration the FAST Act or the fundamental transit funding and how that works,” he said.

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Reporter Newspapers.