Consider this Atlanta. Are you willing to pay a half-penny sales tax to expand MARTA?
That question will be answered when voters go to the polls in November.
MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe calls the upcoming vote “the most significant thing to happen to MARTA in its history.”
Here’s my conversation with Ashe about the piece of legislation that made the November vote possible and what Atlantans would get for their tax dollars.
Ashe: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Bevington: Why is this vote so important?
Ashe: This gives us the opportunity to put in front of Atlanta voters the option to really reshape the face of Atlanta over the next decade or two. We have the opportunity because the legislation passed this last General Assembly to give Atlanta voters the option to double down on their investment in the system and really radically transform how and where we provide transit service throughout the city.
Bevington: It was only four years ago when voters rejected a 10-year, 1 penny sales tax increase to fund transportation in metro Atlanta. What’s different about this upcoming vote?
Ashe: First of all, this vote is only in the city of Atlanta itself. This vote is for MARTA projects. The voters I think in the city have time and again said that they are interested in more transit and they are interested in it now. So we have fought for a couple years now and finally prevailed to get them the right to make that decision for themselves.
Bevington: This tax is expected to raise $2.5 billion over 40 years. How is that money going to be spent?
Ashe: What we primarily intend to do is to work to provide transit in places that we don't provide it now. The historic criticism of MARTA is that we are a north-south/east-west axis. What we'd like to be is more of a network -- more of a spider web, if you will. We'll do that with buses. We'll do that with light rail. We think we can pretty significantly change how many people ride every day and how many people have access to it every day.
Bevington: This seems to represent a real change politically from just four years ago even among state lawmakers.
Ashe: A couple of years ago we hired Keith Parker who came in and really focused his attention on getting our fiscal house in order. Over the past several years we have taken strong steps to get rid of all of the legitimate excuses as to why people don't want to invest more money in MARTA. We've had three years of growing budget surpluses. We have significantly improved bond ratings. We've rebuilt our reserves to $225 million. And then at this year's General Assembly we had a bi-partisan group of legislators who came together to give Atlanta voters this opportunity and recognized that this isn't the end of the road for us or end of the tracks, if you will. This is the most significant thing to happen to MARTA in its history. It's radically transformative. But at the same time it's also just the first step in what is our ultimate vision of expansion into South Fulton, into North Fulton into DeKalb County and eventually beyond.
Bevington: What are the drawbacks to what some have called “relentless incrementalism?”
Ashe: I don't think there's a drawback to relentless incrementalism. What it is is a great way of tackling a very large problem. Another way of expressing it is, “How do you eat and elephant? One bite at a time.” And you start in the core. And you give the place in the Atlanta region where there is unquestionably a pent up demand for more transit the opportunity to make that decision for themselves. You continue to push outward. That relentless incrementalism is how a lot of important things happen and how we expect to transform transit across the region.
Bevington: Robbie Ashe, thanks so much.
Ashe: It's been a real pleasure. Thank you.