If there is one thing metro Atlanta is known for, it’s the traffic. But MARTA Board Chairman Robert Ashe has grand plans to change that. These plans include nearly $8 billion in funding over the next several decades as well as significant improvements and expansion projects, notably expanding rail services to Windward Parkway in Fulton County and in DeKalb County.
MARTA prides itself on being one of the top 10 transportation systems in the country. Their mission is only going to get greater as Atlanta’s population continues to grow and spread out in the metro area.
They estimate their services have moved over 3.5 billion people in the last 25 years.
The importance of MARTA is significant, Ashe said. He pointed to recent corporate moves to Atlanta – such as Kaiser Permanente and Mercedes-Benz – both of which chose locations in Atlanta near metro stations.
“What’s become clear is that having MARTA access and rail access means corporate relocation, increased development in terms of condos and office buildings. And it’s a generational shift to live-work-play. Large employers are finding that, to attract the talent they want, these people need options. One option is transit accessibility.”
However, to move more people efficiently MARTA needs to expand, and that does not come cheap. Three significant projects are on the books.
In Fulton County, plans call for five stations to dot the 12-mile distance from North Springs to Windward Parkway – Northridge Road, Holcomb Bridge Road, Encore Parkway/North Point Mall, Old Milton Parkway and Windward Parkway. No specific sites have been chosen yet.
Another major expansion plan is along the Clifton corridor. This would link the Lindbergh station with the Avondale station in DeKalb County. The light rail line will provide service to one of the region’s most congested areas – and biggest job centers – serving Emory University, Emory Hospital, the Centers for Disease Control, Children’s Healthcare and Veteran’s Administration Hospital.
Finally, a new bus rapid transit service is proposed along I-20 between the existing Five Points MARTA station in downtown Atlanta and a new transit center at Wesley Chapel Road and a 12-mile extension of the existing heavy rail line from the Indian Creek Station. The rail line would extend south, adjacent to I-285 to serve the Wesley Chapel Road transit center, and then transition east parallel to I-20 to the Mall at Stonecrest in Southeastern DeKalb County.
While MARTA has streamlined its services and staff, putting it on stable financial footing in recent years, Ashe said it’s still not enough to expand services, only maintain them.
“We don’t have a way to pay for them at the moment,” he said. “If we are going to talk about capital expansion, we need to identify new sources of revenue.”
That revenue would come in the form of new penny taxes counties can levy for transportation.
The State Legislature has approved HB 170, which allows every county in the state to levy a 1 penny sales tax for transportation for a span of five years.
Ashe said that money could help MARTA expand, but not as the law currently stands – five years is not enough time.
“Five years is too short a time for any of those projects,” he said. “We cannot guarantee any [projects] would be fully constructed within five years.”
And because of this, other revenue sources – such as bonds or federal grants – will be significantly harder to get and there would be little money left over to actually maintain and operate those systems. For the three large projects Ashe wants to build, he needs lots of money over a longer time period.
Ashe wants the legislature to allow Fulton and DeKalb voters to approve a half of that transportation penny tax to be dedicated to MARTA for 40 years. This would be a long-term funding source of about $4 billion he could then use to leverage additional monies – federal monies and bonds – which he said could effectively double the funds.
Thus the $8 billion over 40 years.
With that money, Ashe said, MARTA could finish all three projects as well as work on further opportunities.
“The legislature has already authorized this tax,” Ashe said. “We want the Fulton and DeKalb voters to be given the option to increase the investment they have already made in the system.”