In Fulton County, officials are moving forward with planning to extend mass transit into unserved areas. And they hope to be an example of political unity to leaders in neighboring DeKalb and other counties that have rejected MARTA in the past with the aim of creating a regional transit network.
Fulton County, with agreement from local mayors, is funding an Atlanta Regional Commission study of extending rail transit northward from North Springs Station and southward from the airport, possibly with bus service branching out to the east and west, said Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul.
But a truly regional transit system is needed, the mayor says, and that requires cooperation and planning among leaders from Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Cobb and Clayton counties. He also said there needs to be some kind of public transit that connects Doraville and Cobb along the Perimeter.
“What’s missing … is, not only is there not a real transit plan for Fulton County, there’s not one anywhere close to looking at the region as a whole,” Paul said. “If the political climate [in favor of transit] suddenly happened tomorrow … there’s still no plan in place.”
DeKalb County CEO Mike Thurmond agrees there is no DeKalb strategy on how to bring more rapid transit to the county. He says that’s because officials of DeKalb’s various cities, state officials and business and community leaders have yet to come together.
“It shouldn’t be a surprise that we don’t have a plan,” he said. “We have to come together. The first step is a meeting of the minds.”
Fulton County CEO John Eaves, now running for Atlanta mayor, said Fulton has worked hard to build trust with elected leaders throughout Fulton. County officials recently created a panel of mayors and the board of commissioners to discuss transportation issues, which produced a successful transportation sales tax ballot question last fall.
“We went through this long process of building trust and focusing in on opportunities before us,” he said. “And doggone it, we got there. [The TSPLOST vote] was the first major step toward conversation. The next piece is the transit piece.”
But in DeKalb, there’s a different perspective. State Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody), whose district includes a large section of north metro Atlanta, says the counties shouldn’t have to finance transit plans.
“I’m not opposed to MARTA – I’m just opposed to Fulton and DeKalb paying for it,” Millar said. He wants the state to put money into mass transit and not depend on individual counties’ taxes.
Last month, Millar, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, voted down a bill in committee that would have let local voters decide whether to raise the sales tax by half a penny to fund MARTA rail and bus expansions in DeKalb County. The bill was backed by Thurmond and the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners.
“We’re a constitutional republic, not a democracy,” Millar said of his committee vote. “MARTA doesn’t have a plan for what to do with the money,” he said.
The veteran legislator said he understands the need for a “seamless” regional transit system that includes cooperation among all neighboring jurisdictions, but says Fulton and DeKalb can’t “compel” Gwinnett, Cobb and other counties to help come up with the money for planning such a system.
As for Paul’s recent outspoken support for light rail and mass transit expansion in Sandy Springs, Millar is not impressed. “[Paul] also supports apartments everywhere,” Millar said.
There are members of the Fulton legislative delegation who don’t support MARTA expansion like Paul does, Millar said. For example, the Johns Creek City Council voted unanimously in 2015 to oppose any kind of MARTA expansion into North Fulton.
Paul acknowledged Millar has valid points about DeKalb’s situation.
“I’m not saying Fran is parochial,” he said. “He’s got some legitimate concerns in DeKalb on whether they’ve got the cooperative approach we’ve developed in Fulton County.”
Thurmond said DeKalb still needs to climb that first step in bringing city and county leaders together.
“I just think we need to build consensus around a strategy for DeKalb,” he said. “Rapid transit is a regional issue, not a county issue … and DeKalb is just one component.”
Eaves said he hopes he can help DeKalb County find a way to come together as Thurmond, who took office in January, settles into his new role.
“At some point, we’ve got to be on the same page of, ‘OK, when is DeKalb going to have a plan?’” Eaves said. “My hope is my political influence and my outreach to DeKalb will help them in terms of getting to the level of Fulton, at least in terms of having the [transit] conversation.”
And while it’s a Fulton plan at the moment, there really needs to be regional plan, Eaves said.
“My hope is, it’s a true regional system that at some point connects with Gwinnett and Cobb,” he said.
Paul calls the cooperation he now sees in Fulton “a sea change” in “putting aside racial, partisan and geographic differences.” He said he now views Fulton cities as “Lego blocks” connecting together.
“It comes down to leadership … If you don’t have forward-looking leadership, if you only have people parochial in their viewpoints, you won’t get anywhere,” Paul said.
Losing Eaves as chairman for the Atlanta mayoral concerns Paul. “Is someone going to step up and continue the cooperative environment, or someone who drags us back to the old dark days of us versus them?” Paul asked.
Paul also said he hopes the cooperation in Fulton can serve as an example to DeKalb and other counties, but said, “I’m not Pollyanna, thinking everything is all bright and sunny and perfect in the world,” he said.
MARTA’s image is a challenge, Paul said, noting that “governance is the key issue” as well as MARTA’s “long history of incompetence and waste.”
MARTA CEO Keith Parker is well-liked, but, asked Paul, “How long is he going to be here? Will MARTA revert to its previous behavior if someone new comes in?”
The local officials acknowledged that another former block to MARTA expansion in majority-white northern suburbs was the often racially based perception that MARTA brings crime.
Millar, however, said he doesn’t believe race plays a role anymore in MARTA debates. “I think we’re past that,” he said. “By and large, we’re past that. I don’t hear that argument.”
Paul said he doesn’t hear many criticisms about MARTA bringing crime–though he also had a ready joke about it. “I’ve never seen anybody on a MARTA platform with a 70-inch television waiting for the train,” the mayor said. “My experience is, you want to prevent crime, you outlaw pickup trucks and panel vans.”
“I tell you, 10 years ago maybe, in Fulton County, but doggone it, it’s not there now … or at such a low level it’s not at noise volume,” Eaves said. “You don’t hear this [talk about] MARTA’s going to bring crime.”
Paul and Millar agree on one major issue — that the state needs to fund mass transit.
“It may seem like a snail’s pace, but the state is, for the first time, acknowledging there is a state role in transportation beyond rubber-tired, single-occupancy vehicles,” Paul said.
“Pun intended, they’re starting to touch the third rail of Georgia politics.”
–Dyana Bagby and John Ruch