Compressed-grid rendering

An artist’s rendering of the city of Sandy Springs’ compressed-grid plan for its Johnson Ferry Road-Mount Vernon Highway improvement project shows what it would look like once completed. The project could be entirely paid for with TSPLOST funds.

When it comes to renewing Fulton County’s five-year transportation special-purpose local-option sales tax (TSPLOST), its mayors have spoken.

And at this point, most want a tax that does not include a transit/MARTA component.

“The tally, so everyone knows, is (Option) 3a (a 0.75% tax with no transportation portion) has been supported by 63.25% of the population, 3b (a 0.75% tax with a transit portion included) is not supported currently, and 3c (similar to TSPLOST 1, with both a 0.75% tax for transportation improvement projects and a 0.25% tax for MARTA-related projects) is currently supported by 19.72% of the population,” Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker said. “That means that TSPLOST 2 is overwhelmingly being supported at this point at 82.97%. We know there’s one city left to tally at 2.82% (Fairburn), and, of course, my city is out at the moment at 14.22%.”

Bodker and other officials spoke at the Fulton Board of Commissioners’ Feb. 5 special called mayors’ meeting, which was held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the previous mayors’ meeting Jan. 8, each mayor was to have his or her city council vote to determine which option they preferred.

In a poll of the cities’ mayors at the Feb. 5 meeting, Alpharetta, Chattahoochee Hills, College Park, East Point, Hapeville, Milton, Mountain Park, Palmetto, Roswell and Sandy Springs voted for 3a, Union City and the city of South Fulton opted for 3c, Fairburn plans to decide on it at its Feb. 8 council meeting and Johns Creek supports no options. However, some mayors said their cities are willing to switch from 3a to 3c if needed.

The tax expires in March 2022 and would need to be placed on the November ballot via a voter referendum and be approved then to continue starting next year. At the previous meeting, some mayors expressed apprehension at putting TSPLOST 2 on the ballot in November with the municipal elections, but those doubts may have ended since delaying the referendum vote was not mentioned at the Feb. 5 meeting.

Option 3a is expected to generate about $500 million, which would be distributed to Fulton’s cities except Atlanta, which would have its own tax. Option 3b would collect about $200 million for MARTA and about $300 million for the cities. Option 3c would bring in about $200 million for transit and about $500 million for the cities.

Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) Commissioner Russell McMurry, MARTA General Manager and CEO Jeff Parker and Chris Tomlinson, executive director of the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority (ATL) and the State Road & Tollway Authority, each spoke in an effort to convince the mayors and commissioners to include a transit component in TSPLOST 2.

All three pointed to the county’s transportation-related projects that were all or partially paid for with TSPLOST 1 funds and the fact that many may not have been done without the tax.

Parker said MARTA identified eight high-traffic corridors each in north and south Fulton and looked at ways projects in those areas could be funded by the tax. Some of those projects, such as the Georgia 400 express lanes plan that has a bus-rapid transit (BRT) component MARTA is handling, are already in the works.

On the county’s south side, MARTA is also planning to have BRT on South Fulton Parkway, and has recently added Roosevelt Highway (U.S. 29) as another major thoroughfare to get BRT, to be paid for by TSPLOST, Parker said.

McMurry pointed to the 400 express lanes project as a TSPLOST-related win and said renewing the transit portion of the tax would give the county spending flexibility.

“That does not require Fulton County to have a long-term commitment to have a capital investment,” he said. “That is always the hardest hurdle in any transit program,” he said. Later he added, “I don’t envy the commissioners and mayors for the decisions they have to make.”

If Fulton’s mayors and commissioners stick with 3a as their option, MARTA could take advantage of House Bill 930, which was approved by the state Legislature in 2018 and calls for a 0.2% sales tax option for transit projects. MARTA already has a 1% sales tax in the three counties where it has service, and it expires in 2057, according to the authority’s website.

Sandy Springs is the county’s transportation “lynchpin” because it’s where 400 and Interstate 285, both of which have express lane projects planned and partly funded by MARTA, intersect, Mayor Rusty Paul said. However, Paul added, he would have a hard time getting his residents to agree to pay three taxes for MARTA but is willing to switch from 3a to 3c.

“Sandy Springs is unique in this particular challenge,” he said. “We’re being asked to put in another two-tenths of a cent to fund the north-south piece, and I have no problems, necessarily, with that. But we have a fully mature rail system here, so you’re tying into something we already have. So there’s not a huge benefit to the citizens of Sandy Springs. But we realize we’re part of the whole, so we’d be willing to support that.”

With or without the transit component, the mayors agreed that some form of TSPLOST 2 should be approved by voters to keep their cities’ projects funded.

“The whole region suffers if nothing passes,” East Point Mayor Deana Holiday Ingraham said.

Board Chair Robb Pitts said the mayors would need to develop a project list between now and May, adopt it in June, have a meeting to execute the project list and intergovernmental agreement in July and forward it to the elections officials no later than Aug. 2 to get it on the November ballot.

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