Fulton County mayors reaffirmed their cities’ commitments to renew a transportation sales tax at the current rate without specific funding for bus rapid transit during a joint meeting March 5 with the Fulton County Board of Commissioners. But they now will consider an alternative idea for spending the tax money in a way that could still help the transit projects.

At the start of discussions to renew a transportation special local option sales tax (TSPLOST) that expires in 2022, the commissioners proposed funding bus rapid transit (BRT) projects with a sales tax increase or by reducing how much funding the cities would receive for their own transportation projects and collecting the difference for BRT. The majority of cities decided instead to seek renewal of the sales tax at the same rate without giving a share to BRT.

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

A poll of the mayors at their latest meeting with commissioners confirmed the majority were still in favor of the no-transit option. Transit options would have kept the existing tax rate of 0.72% and dedicated a portion of the revenue to transit, or increased the tax to 1% with the additional revenue going to transit.

TSPLOST is a county sales tax to fund transportation improvements within the participating cities. Voters approved at TSPLOST in a referendum in November 2016. That sales tax expires in April 2022 unless another referendum gets approved.

BRT uses dedicated lanes to shuttle commuters along a busy corridor with a small number of transit stations. The state plans to add BRT on toll lanes to be constructed on Ga. 400. There are similar plans on a route in South Fulton. The North Fulton BRT line along Ga. 400 received $100 million in state funding in recent years. BRT stations would require additional funding with a local match.

The Georgia Department of Transportation and MARTA have said that federal funding of the Ga. 400 BRT is threatened if TSPLOST money or other revenue is not added.

After Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurray suggested the cities set up generic transit projects in TSPLOST to keep federal funding hopes for BRT alive, the county created a new transit funding proposal. Commissioner Liz Hausman introduced a plan in which each city would designate 10% of its TSPLOST revenues for transit. She said the cities could use those funds for any transit project they designated, and it wouldn’t have to be bus rapid transit. Or the funds could be redistributed by the individual cities to their other TSPLOST projects.

The mayors agreed to vote on the 10% set-aside idea at a joint meeting in April after discussing it with their respective city councils.

The cities have until May to make their project proposals, which will be presented to the commission in June. By July, the cities and the county must approve an agreement. That assures the TSPLOST referendum can be sent to the elections superintendent by Aug. 2 to get placed on the November ballot.

Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker asked that a vote be taken at the April joint meeting on setting aside a portion of the tax for transit so they can move forward.

Bodker, who leads the North Fulton Mayors Association, said he wasn’t sure what cities would get for the 10% of TSPLOST revenue the county wanted them to set aside for transit.

“But what I’m unclear about is, other than sticking this money in a pot, what does it accomplish and how much more money does it bring to the table?” he said.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul agreed with Bodker.

“I think my council would consider it if they knew what it was going to buy,” he said.

Once they know what the funding would bring in federal and state matching funds the mayors can make a decision if they want to consider the 10% transit set-aside. Paul said he had no problems bringing the proposal to Sandy Springs City Council if they had that information.

South Fulton mayors were concerned that the plan was drafted mostly with North Fulton input.

“The bottom line is, with this 10% transit bucket scenario, we’re still asking for less money to be spent in our cities, and especially on the South Fulton end of things,” said College Park Mayor Bianca Motley Broom.

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Reporter Newspapers.