Urbanization of Downtown Alpharetta

Last week I wrote about the renewed effort to urbanize the City of Alpharetta. This week we will take a closer look at the current transformation of downtown Alpharetta into an urban core.

Last week’s Alpharetta Herald contained a good article providing insight into the public discussion among our Mayor and City Council members about increasing taxpayer subsidies for the city center project in downtown Alpharetta. You can read the whole thing here.

The reporter, Pat Fox, accurately describes my comments as:

He said he also thinks the project has strayed too far from the image he had of a village-style development and become too heavily focused on mixed-use.

“I don’t believe this plan ever met the spirit of what was sold to the public in the original bond issue back in 2011

The illustration below was published with the article.

alpharetta-urban-collage

Do you notice the huge expanses of green space with trees that serve as the focal point for the development? Do you notice how the heights of buildings within each block of development vary as if they were built over time rather than all at once? It looks pretty good doesn’t it?

Unfortunately the picture above is not the development which our mayor and council just voted to further subsidize with hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars. The actual proposal to be built downtown is shown below.

alpharetta-city-center-2016

As you can see the “village style” city center used to promote bonds for the development has now been transformed into something more resembling Bull Street in downtown Savannah. But even Bull Street doesn’t have a four story apartment building with more than 130 units covering an entire city block. The stark contrast between what was originally sold to residents and what is actually being built provides a timely illustration of the current urbanization taking place in Downtown Alpharetta.

Back in 2011 Alpharetta was mired in the depths of a severe recession. The top priority for our mayor and council at that point was getting Alpharetta’s economy back on track. I am proud to say that when we all worked together toward that common vision the results were overwhelming.

But this is no longer 2011. This is 2016 and today Alpharetta has a booming economy.

The size and density of the numerous development projects approved over the past five years are going to transform this community in ways we can only begin to appreciate. Avalon is only half complete and the developments along Old Milton Parkway and Thompson Street have just started. Thousands of apartments, town houses and homes have been approved but not yet built while nearly every week another large swath of trees is clear cut for more development.

Back in 2011 the people of Alpharetta and their elected officials could only hope for that day when we could face the challenge of how to manage explosive growth. That day is here now.

Mayor Belle Isle and our city council have shown what we can accomplish when we share the same vision. We brought tremendous growth back to this community and we can manage that growth to protect those qualities which make Alpharetta so special.

But when you look at the drastic differences in the two visions above it is no longer clear we still share the same vision. And until we agree on where we are going it will be impossible for us to agree about how we get there.

 

 

Is The Current MARTA Vision Worth The Chase?

The article below was written by Mayor David Belle Isle, the mayor of Alpharetta, who gave me permission to share it with you here.

 

Is The Current MARTA Vision Worth The Chase?

I’m a vision guy. I love looking at something and imagining what it could be; what it could be like; and how to get there. I love chasing a vision and seeing the pieces fall into place. But, for a vision to be worth the chase, the promise of “what could be” has to be better than “what is.”

Last week, I found myself in a makeshift room midway up the interior back stairs of the State Capitol. The room was packed. The air was hot. I was there to testify on behalf of Alpharetta at a committee hearing on the proposed MARTA expansion bill, SB 330. To my surprise, the room was not full of concerned every day citizens seeking faster commute times to home and work. Rather, it was filled with developers, lobbyists, and employees of chamber and public policy groups. Indeed, a total of 7 lobbying firms have been retained to make sure this MARTA bill gets passed and that you vote for it. Big money. Big stakes. Big supporters.

Among others, two developers spoke of how wonderful the MARTA expansion would be for the economy, specifically their economy. They introduced a new phrase: “transit premium.” This is the concept by which the properties serviced by the rail will increase in value by 50%. This is fantastic! Fantastic, that is, if you’re a property owner or developer near a proposed new transit station.

On the whole, I firmly believe that the expansion of public transit is part of the solution as we look to shorten our drive times to home and to work. But, the current $8 Billion proposal has me scratching my head:

  1. What About the 97%ers? Only 3% of commuters within reach of the current rail use MARTA and ridership is down over the past 10 years.
  2. Convenience Factor. For most, using rail involves a six-part process: a drive to the station, a wait for the train, a ride on the rail, a wait for a bus, a ride to a bus stop, and a walk to their building. Real people will weigh that time and hassle against driving straight to work.
  3. Transit for Everyone… Else. Many who support the expansion of MARTA rail are laboring under the hope that others will take the train so that their drive downtown won’t take so long.
  4. Until Death Do It Tax. 43 years is a long time to pay a tax on everything you purchase. This puts the full payment outside my life expectancy. I’m 40.
  5. Bait and Switch. The MARTA project list is disposable. MARTA is not obligated to build the projects the voters are being asked to fund. They should be.
  6. Hadn’t Thought of That. No one has thought to measure the expected improvement, if any, along Georgia 400. For an informed vote, we need to know how much quicker our drives will be.
  7. Federal Match? The proposed expansion is dependent on federal matching funds of $4 Billion. There is no obligation by the Fed to commit these funds. Before MARTA expansion hits a ballot, there should be.
  8. I’m Against What? The ballot question is worded in a way that a “No” vote implies you oppose traffic relief and economic development. The question should be neutral.
  9. Stacked Deck for Alpharetta. If successful, 3 new transit stations will attract 3 new streams of traffic from surrounding areas and require 3 new 2,500-car parking decks constructed MARTA-style.

I truly want to see us, as a region, take on traffic and develop a comprehensive plan. I can see it. That’s my vision. It is imprinted on my mind. Yet, we need to look at all the options openly: heavy rail, new roads, light rail, additional lanes, bus-rapid-transit, managed lanes, bus circulator programs, intersection improvements, signal timing, adaptive traffic, Uber, driverless cars. If we’re not careful, we’ll spend more than half of our transportation dollars on 3% of our commuters. “What could be” will be no better than “what is,” except we’ll have the pleasure of paying for “what should never have been.” The best answer probably lies in some combination of travel methods. We don’t know. But before we vote, let’s find out if this vision is worth the chase.

 

 

Resolution of the Mayor and Council Regarding MARTA Tax Increase

Last night the Alpharetta Mayor and City Council unanimously supported a resolution asking members of the Georgia state legislature to allow Fulton County to finish the transportation improvement process begun last year under House Bill 170. It is my understanding that the Mayor and City Council of Johns Creek have also adopted this resolution.

Last year’s House Bill 170 laid out a well designed plan for investing in the diverse infrastructure needs of a county the size of Fulton. The resolution below would preserve that ongoing process while still providing municipalities more flexibility to expand transit within that framework as needed. You can click on the photo below to read the whole thing.

 

Alpharetta SB 330 Resolution_edited-1

Opinion of Mayor David Belle Isle

For months Fulton County mayors have been meeting to negotiate an agreement regarding a transportation sales tax which was authorized in House Bill 170 passed by the Georgia legislature in 2015. Below is a press release issued today by Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle regarding the matter.

I support our Mayor’s critical approach to an issue that is vital to the future of our region and our state. I am proud to serve with a man who has the courage to stand up for what we both know is right regardless of which way the prevailing political winds may be blowing. You can click below to view the whole statement.

 

DBI MARTA statement

Legitimate Poll shows Overwhelming Opposition to Rail in North Fulton

Supporters of Georgia State Senator Brandon Beach’s MARTA tax increase bill, SB 313, have made many claims about public support for the legislation. As an elected representative of 63,000 people who live in Alpharetta I know many of those claims are inconsistent with the truth. That is why I am pleased to release the findings of an objective, statistically valid poll which demonstrates the people of North Fulton overwhelmingly oppose such a tax increase for the purpose of extending heavy rail in the region.

Legitimate Poll shows Overwhelming Opposition to Rail in North Fulton

Voters in the 5 major cities of North Fulton county have spoken and oppose a massive tax increase to support a Marta heavy rail extension.  When presented with a reasonable and accurate set of facts, the poll showed a clear landslide rebuttal.  Women opposed the tax increase and rail line by almost 63% and Republicans by almost 69%.  Democrats also opposed by a slim majority and African-Americans opposed by over 66%.  All age demographics were a majority against the tax increase and rail line. The poll was conducted by Landmark Communications a respected, non-biased firm.

 

Landmark MARTA poll

A decision of this magnitude deserves better

In an earlier post I wrote about my experience at the state capital last week. For more background you should also read this article about the hearing at GeorgiaPol.com.

As I testified at the senate hearing Senator Beach commented, “We can disagree without being disagreeable” and I couldn’t agree more. That is why some of the comments made by him and others supporting his 50% MARTA tax increase are so troublesome.

That doesn’t make sense to Beach. MARTA’s opponents, he said, are desperate for solutions. “Some of the politicians are saying, well, nobody is going to use it, and then in the next sentence they’re saying it’s going to create so much congestion coming into it. Well, you can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to have all this congestion, you’re going to have ridership. Just tell me one or the other.”

“The politicians are scared to death” of MARTA expansion, Beach said in an interview earlier this week.

What a perfect example of heavy rail supporters insulting their opponents and misleading the public without addressing the facts laid out by their opposition. Senator Beach’s assertion that politicians say, “nobody is going to use it” is just false hyperbole.

I have never heard it said by any opponent of heavy rail. However I have repeatedly pointed out that the U.S. Census shows only 2% of Fulton County residents ride heavy rail to work.

Yet while Senator Beach’s assertion that politicians say “nobody” is going to ride MARTA is false, his assertion that some say it’s going to cause more congestion is true and supported by facts.

Only 5% of the people who live in the zip code surrounding the North Springs MARTA station in Sandy Springs use heavy rail to get to work.

Commute chart Sandy Springs

And since only 846 people who live within walking distance of the station take trains to work MARTA had to build enormous parking garages. Why? Because most of the people who ride the trains have to drive cars to the station.

That is why rush hour traffic around North Springs is so bad the state of Georgia is spending a billion dollars trying to fix the problem while Sandy Springs is considering building monorails and the Perimeter CID is designing ways to expand surface streets to accommodate more cars, buses and trolleys at taxpayer expense.

So when Mr. Beach demands to know whether it is “one or the other” the response is “the other” because no politician says nobody will ride MARTA trains. Instead informed politicians say that while a small group of people around train stations will ride them the overwhelming majority of riders are forced to drive cars to the station making traffic worse.

Which means a bill dictating MARTA must expand using expensive, inflexible heavy rail lines along GA 400 will force commuters to crowd surrounding streets exacerbating congestion. The only public transportation that can effectively address existing congestion issues while improving economic development opportunities is Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

The people of North Fulton are tired of congestion on the arterial roads and surface streets around GA 400. Of course other people have a vested interest in making sure transit forces people to visit the Georgia 400 corridor.

That’s why it was perfectly reasonable for Senator Beach to sponsor Senate Bill 313. Senator Beach is President of the North Fulton Community Improvement District (CID) a tax district created specifically to increase the property values of commercial properties along GA 400.

Understanding that, it makes sense for Senator Beach to pretend that North Fulton is doomed if taxpayers don’t spend billions of tax dollars to extend heavy rail into the CID there. No law forces political decisions to be decided on objective facts. So if Senator Beach supports a regressive tax increase which takes money from single moms in East Point to build train stations on three properties within the North Fulton CID it is perfectly fine. Even if it doesn’t seem fair, it’s good business for the CID.

Which is why it was also perfectly reasonable for Mr. Mark Toro to speak in favor of Senator Beach’s MARTA tax increase. Mr. Toro is a partner in North American Properties, the company now selling their Avalon mixed use development in Alpharetta. If Avalon is worth $500 million now it should be worth tens of millions more with a MARTA station. That’s just good business.

That’s the same reason Mr. Toro was a vocal supporter of the failed Tsplost tax that would have brought heavy rail to Atlantic Station in 2012. Now that North American has sold Atlantic Station and has Avalon on the market it is no surprise he supports a bill forcing Johns Creek retirees to pay for a MARTA station there.

And if Mr. Toro has to tell people who live in the City of Atlanta that objections to Senator Beach’s proposal are based on “racism” and a “bunch of old white guys”… so be it. If that’s what it takes to convince minority taxpayers in Atlanta they should pay for a 2.4 billion dollar amenity in the North Fulton CID, that’s just good business.

But the truth is that most elected officials in North Fulton support expanding some form of transit. Objections to Senator Beach’s 50% MARTA tax increase are not based on racism, irrational fears or muddled thinking but on sound reasoning and fiscal responsibility.

SB 313 diverts billions of dollars from efforts to build a sustainable transportation network that can support a vibrant region and directs them to an overpriced, inflexible mode of transportation that primarily benefits the commercial properties like Avalon within the North Fulton CID. To characterize principled, informed opposition to Senate Bill as irrational fear or uninformed reactionary politics is insulting.

A decision of this magnitude deserves better.

 

Comments about the SB 313 Hearing

I commented on an article at GeorgiaPol.com about a hearing I attended regarding Senator Brandon Beach’s 50% MARTA tax increase proposal. It’s the best article I have seen about the meeting and you should read the whole thing here.

I am including my comment below for readers here.

I appreciate your coverage of the event but am disappointed by your characterization of this discussion as “histrionics”. While there were some jabs taken by both sides at Senator Albers’ hearing there were also a lot of facts and objective analysis presented.

The population of the City of Atlanta was 496,973 in 1970 and MARTA was created the next year. By the 2010 census the City of Atlanta’s population had declined to 420,003 residents while the population of the surrounding metropolitan areas increased by more than 3 million.

For 45 years an outdated transit plan concentrated on a stagnant urban core received billions of dollars in sales tax revenues while booming areas of growth have been starved of money for burgeoning infrastructure needs. Senator Beach’s 50% MARTA Tax increase proposal compounds that error and makes it worse by cementing it in place for another 50 years.

North Fulton is booming and Alpharetta has attracted thousands of new jobs over the last few years despite claims of impending doom by Senator Beach and Mark Toro. The greatest threat to that success is the congestion on our surface streets, arterial roads and GA 400. Senator Beach’s plan would do nothing to address our needs would make it even more difficult for cities to address them.

The legislature tried to address that problem with HB 170 last year which allowed Fulton County to levy an additional 1% sales tax to be distributed among its municipalities for those crucial infrastructure needs. Senator Beach’s tax increase bill complete destroys that framework by cutting the funds available to cities and increasing the MARTA tax by 50% for so long that the Millennial generation will be on Medicare by the time it expires.

SB 313 would cost the City of Alpharetta alone nearly $42 million dollars over the 5 years permitted currently. The cities of North Fulton combined would lose a total of $251 million dollars to MARTA. That is money that could address immediate needs and required to be allocated for projects which can be completed or substantially begun within 5 years. But under Senator Beach’s bill that $251 million would be diverted to MARTA projects dependent on receiving billions of dollars from the federal government and under the best of circumstances would not even be through the environmental studies phase in 5 years.

And as I stated along with several other speakers including Mr. Feigenbaum, the only credentialed transportation expert to testify, Bus Rapid Transit is the only transit method which makes any sense in low density suburban areas like North Fulton. Curiously HB 313 actually designates the cheaper, more efficient BRT for expansion in Dekalb County but there has been no explanation for the extra billion dollars it would cost to use heavy rail in Fulton.

For those wondering where the tax revenue projections I use come from they are the numbers compiled by Fulton County for HB 170 negotiations among the cities.

Caution Recommended on Sales Tax Increase for Rail Transit

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation has published an analysis of the proposed tax increase being pushed by State Senator Brandon Beach to fund MARTA heavy rail expansions. You should read the whole article by Baruch Feigenbaum here but I will highlight a few of the most critical points here as well.

The north Fulton corridor, in contrast, has a population density of approximately 1,500 people per square mile, far too low to support rail.

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Given the high cost of expansion of rail and the corridor’s low population and employment densities, a bus rapid transit/express bus line using SR 400’s soon-to-be-constructed express lanes would be a much better option.

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Increasing the sales tax is also regressive; it harms low-income riders who depend on transit the most.

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Rail systems, which are hub and spoke, are designed to transport workers from suburban regions to downtowns. But many metro Atlanta jobs are in the suburbs and most workers commute from suburb to suburb. Many residents of North Fulton commute to the Cumberland area, North DeKalb area or other job centers without rail service. Expanding the rail line is no benefit to all these workers.

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North Fulton could have BRT connections to East Cobb, North DeKalb, Southwest Gwinnett, South Forsyth, and Southeast Cherokee counties. Rail is estimated to be 16- to 22 times the cost of bus rapid transit, which means that for one MARTA heavy-rail expansion we could provide 20 high quality bus rapid transit expansions.

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New transit technology is likely to revolutionize transit service over the next 30 years. Many Millennials are substituting ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft for traditional fixed-route transit. Autonomous vehicles while still in the development stage, are likely to revolutionize transit service and land use. While quality mass transit service is important today, policy makers should build a system that has the flexibility to evolve with new technological developments.

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A new quarter-penny sales tax for transit could build one heavy-rail extension that would lock up transit funding and lock in an aging technology for the foreseeable future and take more than 100 years to pay off. Alternatively, the same funding could implement a network of high-quality express bus and bus rapid transit service across North Fulton County.

Any objective analysis shows that Senator Beach’s proposed tax increase for heavy rail would be a tremendous misallocation of resources in a time when transportation dollars are too hard to come by already. What a shame.

That’s the problem

Last Thursday I attended the Evening to Support Transit Expansion With Senator Brandon Beach in Alpharetta hosted by the organization Advance ATL. It was a friendly and informal event held to support Alpharetta State Senator Brandon Beach’s proposed legislation which will permit Fulton County to increase the current MARTA sales tax by 50%. The additional $130 million a year would fund the expansion of MARTA’s heavy rail trains as far as Windward Parkway in Alpharetta.

Most of the people who attended were affiliated with Advance Atl but there were also representatives of the Sierra Club, the Council for Quality Growth and the Atlanta Regional Commission among others. There was even a state legislative candidate from Gwinnett County advocating better transit access for the impoverished immigrants in the district she would like to represent.

Of the 35-40 people attending I only spotted 5 people who live in Alpharetta: Senator Brandon Beach and his lovely wife, Alpharetta City Councilman Jason Binder, one person who identified himself as an Alpharetta resident and me. Suffice it to say that for an event to support a transit tax hike that will have an enormous impact on the people of Alpharetta the crowd was overwhelmingly composed of millennials who drove from inside the perimeter.

The casual environment of the event provided an excellent opportunity to discuss transportation, taxes and transit with people who are actively lobbying to pass Senator Beach’s tax hike. I found my conversations with a gentlemen who is a Transit Coordinator for the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) and a woman who is a transit advocate for the Sierra Club especially enlightening.

The Transit coordinator for ARC actually made the most thought provoking comment of the evening to me. He and I had a great discussion about heavy rail, my reasons for believing heavy rail would be the absolute worst possible transit option for Alpharetta and why based on those reasons I believe Senator Beach’s tax increase would have a devastating impact on the future of Alpharetta and North Fulton County.

We discussed the point that heavy rail was too expensive for the small number of people it would serve. We discussed how heavy rail was too inflexible to justify the exorbitant expense at a time when the future of transportation will be determined in large part by innovations like self driving automobiles and more flexible work environments. We even discussed how heavy rail would create worse rush hour traffic in North Fulton because it would concentrate heavier automobile traffic on the arterial roads as the majority of train riders would have to drive from other areas during the times our roads are already the most congested.

Then I mentioned that heavy rail was also the worst possible solution because it would never serve more than 7% of the surrounding population and would therefore never be feasible given the residential densities which foster the quality of life people here desire. His candid response was,”Well… that’s the problem.

That’s when I realized that to a transit coordinator from the Atlanta Regional Commission the problem is that the people of Alpharetta reject the dense, urban environment needed to justify exorbitantly expensive and inflexible trains which would only make our traffic worse. Which is very different than the problem from the perspective of people who live in Alpharetta, prefer our green spaces, great schools and low crime rates but don’t want to be stuck in traffic on their way to work or back home to the lifestyle they love.

On one hand you have rail advocates who want suburban Alpharetta to become a dense, urban environment to support the lifestyle and transportation mode they prefer. But on the other hand you have people who enjoy a quality of life that can’t exist in an urban environment and simply want a cost effective mode of transportation to support their lifestyle. So when we get right down to it that is the problem: as a region we haven’t agreed on the problem we are trying to solve and if we can’t agree on the problem we will never agree on the solution.

North Fulton is a pretty affluent area. If most residents in Alpharetta or Johns Creek or Milton wanted to live in Sandy Springs or Buckhead they could… but they don’t. They prefer exceptional school districts, lower crime rates, and single family homes with yards for children and pets to play in. That is why they live here and they expect their elected officials to provide transportation solutions which support that quality of life.

I ran for office because I love Alpharetta. I love living in a city full of diverse people from all over the world who have chosen to make Alpharetta their home because they believe it is the best place in Georgia to raise a family and do business. I love my single family house on a 1/3 of an acre with grass and oak trees on a cul de sac lot. I love coming home to deer and chipmunks in my front yard and the occasional hawk or owl perched on my son’s basketball goal. I believe Alpharetta is a special place and so do thousands of other people who invest their time and money in this community to keep it that way.

And yet my neighbors and I are not so arrogant as to believe everyone should share our preferences. I have never heard a neighbor criticize people who live in Buckhead or Kirkwood for choosing to live in areas with higher crime and poor schools because they prefer urban environments with easier access to heavy rail. I have also never heard any of my neighbors advocate for higher taxes on those people who don’t choose our lifestyle to subsidize our preferences.

Different people have different priorities and should have the freedom to live as they choose as long as it doesn’t negatively impact other people’s rights. Fortunately events like the one Advance ATL hosted allow people with different backgrounds and perspectives to share their views face to face.

Because until we agree on the problem we can’t hope to find a solution… that’s the problem.

MARTA sales taxes & Alpharetta property taxes

Sales taxes can be useful but they can also be an insidious method of taxation because it is so difficult for individuals to recognize the full cost. As discussed in this previous post the current MARTA tax in Fulton County amounts to $265 million a year and since there are about a million residents in Fulton it works out to a tax of about $265 per every man, woman and child.

If every person who lives in Fulton County was forced to write a check for their MARTA subsidy the 98% of people who rarely ride transit would be outraged. Even many of the 2% who actually ride heavy rail to work would complain about the $265 bill.

Imagine if a mother and father living in Alpharetta with two young children opened their mailbox to find a bill for their family’s $1060 share of the MARTA subsidy. But that would never happen because if it did heads down at the Gold Dome would roll faster than Richard Petty at Daytona.

But if diapers cost thirty cents more, each trip to the grocery store costs $2 more, the new refrigerator costs an extra $20 and 1% of everything else a family buys all year long adds up to $1060 they will probably never notice. It’s just a penny, right? That way MARTA gets $265 million a year and politicians get to keep their heads.

But when it comes to local property taxes people do get a bill in the mail each year. So for comparison’s sake let’s take a look at the size of Fulton County’s current 1% MARTA sales tax compared to the property taxes paid by the people of Alpharetta.

The 2016 budget for Alpharetta estimates property tax revenues of $18.8 million. With a population of 63,000 that works out to about $298 a year for every man, woman and child living in the city. The current MARTA sales tax costs about $265 per person in Fulton County. That means the property taxes in Alpharetta are only about $33 more than the cost of MARTA taxes to our average resident.

But if State Senator Brandon Beach’s 50% MARTA tax increase is enacted the cost per Fulton resident would skyrocket to almost $400 per person or $1600 for a family of four. Which means the average cost of MARTA taxes per Alpharetta resident would be $100 more a year than their property taxes.

Property taxes pay the salaries of the men and women in police cars and fire stations who work around the clock, 365 days a year to keep families, homes and businesses safe. Property taxes keep Alpharetta roads paved and traffic signals working. Local property taxes pay for nationally recognized recreation programs and parks that include an 8 mile Greenway lying along the shady banks of Big Creek.

Municipal property taxes pay a major portion of everything it takes to make Alpharetta one of the greatest places in the world to raise a family and do business. Yet if Senator Beach’s sales tax hike is enacted the average share of property taxes per resident would cost $100 less than what is collected to pay for MARTA services that only one person out of hundred people even use.

Put another way, if a $400 per person MARTA tax was distributed to the cities of Fulton County every year to cover essential services like police, fire departments and roads the City of Alpharetta could completely eliminate property taxes and have $6 million left over for transportation improvements. Now that would be a boon for economic development in North Fulton that MARTA could never provide.