Fulton Mayors Debate Future Transportation Spending

Jan 14, 2016

The passage of the state’s comprehensive transportation funding plan last year means Fulton County could receive more than a billion dollars in transportation funds. But first, the mayors of each of Fulton's cities have to decide how to spend the money and how much money, if any, to give to MARTA.

By a majority vote of eight to six, commissioners and mayors at the Fulton County Government Center voted on Wednesday to divide future transportation dollars according to population count.

The city of Atlanta, with the highest percentage of the county's population, would receive more than half of the billion dollars in transportation funding. At 42.7 percent, it has the largest percentage of the county's population, so it would receive the most money.

The mayors of less dense cities, like Alpharetta and College Park, voted against this system.

Chattahoochee Hills mayor Tom Reed voted for an option that only used population as one third of the distribution method -- and also considered employment and roadway mileage.

"The future playground of Fulton County, with seventy percent of the land being protected and preserved, the third-third-third works better for us,” Reed said. “It takes into account very low density cities like us and looks at all of the things that impacts people."

Fulton County Chairman John Eaves said division based on population was the most fair method of distribution.

"This is something good for our county and cities collectively as part of our county,” Eaves said. “I think that that was sort of the thinking perhaps of the population-only vote on our part. We want to look at this in terms of projects that will benefit all of us."

The Fulton County Board of Commissioners voted on behalf of the unincorporated parts of the county and the city of Milton was not present for the vote.

The harder question Fulton leaders are struggling with now is what percentage of the money to allocate towards public transit versus roads.  

Some, like Johns Creek mayor Mike Bodker, have said they do not want MARTA to get any of this money unless the transit agency can prove it would be a benefit to their respective city. 

"My inclination to change and to push my council -- because at the end of the day, I take my orders from my council -- would be based on how I can convey to them a feeling that [the proposed MARTA projects] will actually have a positive impact on Johns Creek citizens lives," Bodker said, "and that will be measured through the reduction of congestion."

Bodker said he questions the overall goals of MARTA and called for a “more honest conversation” about how the region can “retrofit transit on top of growth.”

Bodker said many cities with reasonably-sized work centers like Johns Creek still do not have access to transit and MARTA is currently unable to support express bus service.

"We have in metro Atlanta a significantly different scenario because we did not have the benefit of our community growing around transit," Bodker said. "We grew, then the transit came. And then we held the transit by virtue of -- to be honest -- racism within our community in our early years. If I continue to allow certain things to occur, we re-engineer which work centers succeed and which ones fail.” 

The state’s transportation funding plan, House Bill 170, says counties can try to raise sales taxes to augment the state transportation funds. MARTA says it wants some of that money.

MARTA Board chairman Robbie Ashe said he was disappointed that mayors were leaning towards giving MARTA only a quarter of the sales tax revenue instead of half. But he said he was grateful for the recognition of the need for more investment in transit in the region. 

Mayors asked MARTA to come back with more information on whether current projects presented to the mayors would have any overlap with the state's project list

"I don't know enough about what the state intends to be able to speak about their plans," Ashe said. "MARTA is in favor of roads, our buses need them to operate, so additional infrastructure investment is a good thing, whether it's roads or trains, either one of those things helps facilitate more transit." 

But first, the mayors and commissioners of Fulton County have to agree on whether they want to give money to MARTA and before November 8, so they can take the question to the voters.