As metro Atlanta’s population drives toward 7 million, the region’s public transit needs must be addressed, Jeff Parker said.
“We’re the third fastest-growing region in this country,” MARTA’s general manager and CEO said. “Only Dallas and Houston are growing faster than us. If we don’t invest in our stations and our fleet, in 30 to 40 years, we won’t be able to move people around.”
Parker spoke on that topic and more at the Rotary Club of Buckhead weekly lunch meeting April 22 at Maggiano’s Little Italy in Buckhead. His talk came nearly five weeks after 54% of Gwinnett County's registered voters casting ballots voted against a referendum to levy a new sales tax of up to 1% to pay for new transit projects, in essence extending MARTA service into Gwinnett as part of the Atlanta-region Transit Link (The ATL).
The vote was made possible by House Bill 930, which was approved by lawmakers and signed last year by then-Gov. Nathan Deal. It allows 13 counties in the metro area to vote on adding public transit, including MARTA.
“Unfortunately Gwinnett County was not favorable in terms of passing the referendum,” Parker said. “As we move toward the future, we’ll be investing more on transit in the future.”
In an interview after his speech, he said he wasn’t disappointed in Gwinnett’s no vote but added it’s important to have a more investment in transportation infrastructure.
“(Public) transit is a huge piece of that,” Parker said. “But there’s big opportunities. The city of Atlanta has stepped up. Clayton County has stepped up. Other counties around are laying their plans out. … Personally, I’ve lived in metro Atlanta for 13 years and have seen a huge shift in support around investment in transit, and I think our future is bright.”
Cobb County may be the next county to vote on bringing The ATL to its area, but it wants to delay that decision as long as possible. In February the Cobb Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution asking lawmakers to extend that provision until 2022. But the General Assembly was unable to pass a law to extend the deadline during this year's session, which ended April 2.
“I hope the fact we had bipartisan support from the delegation — I think it was a unanimous vote — to support the extension to 2022 will have some bearing on how the Legislature considers the proposed change,” Cobb Commission Chair Mike Boyce said in February. “I’ll work with whatever they give us, and I’ll work it out with the board to see what we want to do and whatever they decide on.”
When asked about the Cobb vote, Parker said that was a question for that county’s politicians.
MARTA is the nation's ninth largest mass transit system, and by adding Cobb, Gwinnett and possibly other counties as part of The ATL, it could move up a few slots on that list. But getting other counties to vote to join MARTA, which some say brings crime to those areas and some object to because of the added cost in taxes, could be difficult.
While expanding MARTA/The ATL into other metro counties is the hot topic, Parker said MARTA continues to invest in improvements to its system, which includes Clayton, DeKalb and Fulton counties.
“We’re investing in our rail cars,” he said. “We’re about to sign a new contract on our (updating) rail cars, and are adding up to 1,000 new (bus) shelters in the next five years.”
Parker said he’s proud of the investments voters in Clayton and Fulton counties have made in the past five years. Clayton added rail/bus service following a 2014 referendum vote to approve a 1% sales tax to fund it.
“What we’re focused on now is a rail corridor to Lovejoy,” he said. “We’re working with Norfolk Southern, which owns the rail corridor. We’re also working on an east-west bus line.
He added DeKalb is crafting a master plan for its transit services and, once it’s finished, county leaders could push for a referendum to approve a sales tax of up to 1% to help fund those services.
“Fulton County finalized their transit study a few years ago, and they could be planning for a referendum on transit,” Parker said. In 2016 Fulton voters approved two separate transportation local-option special-purpose sales taxes (TSPLOSTs), with a 0.9% one going to MARTA and other transit projects in the city of Atlanta and a 0.75% one for all areas of the county outside Atlanta.
MARTA has also been creative in the use of its land in and around its train stations. Its transit-oriented development projects include a plan to build a 10-story development on top of the Peachtree Center station in downtown Atlanta.
StationSoccer, a program in partnership with Soccer in the Streets, has the world’s first soccer field at a transit station (Five Points), and is the globe’s first transit soccer league.
“We plan to have 10 soccer pitches throughout the area,” Parker said.
Marietta Daily Journal Staff Writer Jon Gargis contributed to this report.