Clayton seeks increased MARTA presence as transit agency faces future

As MARTA weighs its next move in metro Atlanta's transit future, political leaders and residents in Clayton County want the agency to accelerate its plans to build out a commuter network for its transit-hungry residents.

Making sure MARTA’s operations are solid in this southside metro Atlanta community, they say, could go a long way to convincing other communities of the benefits of transit.

Following last month's crushing rejection by voters of MARTA's expansion into Gwinnett County, Clayton leaders said the county is a good example of the impact of transit on improving economic development, reducing income inequity and reducing traffic congestion.

“A community needs workers at all types of levels,” said Khalfani Stephens, executive director of the Clayton County Development Authority. “Someone is going to work at McDonald’s, someone is going to sweep the streets. The reality is some people in the spectrum, because of the nature of our capitalistic society, don’t make enough money to own a vehicle. So they require public transportation.”

While the county scored a victory at the end of last year when MARTA approved a 22-mile commuter rail line to begin operating from East Point to Lovejoy in the next 10 years, leaders and residents want the transit agency to focus on more immediate needs, such as more bus frequency, additional routes and a much-promised maintenance facility expected to bring dozens of jobs to the county.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions for me,” said Clayton Commissioner DeMont Davis, who wants MARTA to be more specific and less general in its plans for Clayton. “I almost want a project plan rather than a presentation.”

MARTA said Clayton remains a priority, even as it looks to broaden its footprint. The service holds quarterly meetings with the Clayton Commission, regularly updates an advisory committee and has invested in Clayton workers through several job fairs, the most recent of which was held last month.

Frayed nerves

Some Clayton leaders, however, became unnerved during MARTA’s efforts to strike a Gwinnett transit deal. Under the plan, MARTA would have taken over and expanded transit offerings in Georgia’s second largest county, including bus service, Express routes and new park-and-ride areas. Heavy rail from the Doraville Station in DeKalb County to a Gwinnett transit hub near I-85 and Jimmy Carter Boulevard also was considered.

“I want us to pay very close attention so we are not left out,” Clayton Commissioner Gail Hambrick said during a Clayton Commission meeting the night of the Gwinnett vote, convinced it was going to pass.

Gwinnett voters defeated the measure 54 percent to 46 percent.

MARTA Acting Assistant General Manager of Planning Don Williams said Clayton officials need not worry about being ignored. He said some in DeKalb and Fulton counties and the city of Atlanta had the same concerns when Clayton came aboard, but that has not diminished MARTA’s commitment to its original customers.

Jeffrey Parker, MARTA's CEO, said among the plans under consideration is a bus rapid transit system along Clayton's heaviest used routes to connect College Park, Riverdale and Morrow.

Bus rapid transit or “BRT” are buses that operate more like a subway train on the road. They have fewer stops and travel in dedicated lanes to avoid traffic tie-ups.

That coupled with the coming commuter rail will position Clayton as a transit leader for the region.

“These projects show MARTA’s continued commitment to bringing first-class transit, economic opportunity, and community development to one of metro Atlanta’s fastest growing areas,” he said.

MARTA started slowly in Clayton with just three routes during its March 2015 launch. Since then the county has added 10 more routes and is looking for land to build a maintenance facility that will fix buses and commuter trains for Clayton and South Fulton counties.

Revenue from the 1 cent sales tax increase Clayton citizens imposed on themselves for MARTA has grown year over year. About $51.7 million was collected last year, up 6 percent over the year before and 8 percent more above the first full year of collections in 2016.

Ridership strong, but declining

Like other parts of metro Atlanta, MARTA ridership has struggled in Clayton. An average 233,000 people a month rode MARTA last year, down from the county’s peak of about 317,000 in 2016.

That drop parallels declines in ridership across the metro area and the nation in the past several years, which some have attributed in part to more people able to afford cars because of the economy, increased ride sharing options such as Lyft and Uber, online shopping and telecommuting.

Yet that has not hurt county interest in seeking more service. For example, businesses at Clayton’s Fort Gillem have asked MARTA to install bus stops on the campus so workers can be closer to their offices instead of being dropped hundreds of feet away on the current route, the Development Authority’s Stephens said.

Clayton Commission Chairman Jeff Turner said its human nature to want needs met immediately, but said nothing works perfectly in an imperfect world. For instance, there are only four benches at MARTA’s bus stops because no one was interested in advertising in Clayton when MARTA service was launched. MARTA typically contracts with advertising as a way to raise revenue for benches.

The agency said it is negotiating a 10-year advertising deal that could soon result in hundreds of benches for Clayton. MARTA is planning an addition 75 benches and 75 shelters on its own for Clayton in the next five years.

“Up until now, no one bid on [advertising] for bus stop benches,” Turner said.

Riverdale resident and MARTA rider Jamila Hazel, 19, said she has been pleased with the service in Clayton. While the dearth of shelters is noticeable, it’s not something she thinks detracts from the overall experience, she said as she waited for a bus outside Southern Regional Medical Center for a bus to take her to the College Park train station.

“It would be really convenient to have a bench at this bus stop specifically because people from the hospital come out here and if they are disabled or are not feeling their best, that would be helpful, said Hazel, who works at the Barclay Hotel in downtown Atlanta.

Clayton leaders said the buses also help to address unemployment in Clayton by connecting residents to jobs. While the county of 285,000 has the highest unemployment in the metro area at 5.6 percent, that is down significantly from the 14.5 percent it hit in June 2011.

Lovejoy residents Shamira Colvin said she just wants to be able to get back and forth to work much more quickly. She said a one-way trip from the College Park MARTA station to her home can take as long as an hour

“They need more buses out here,” said Colvin, as she stood in a worn patch of grass at a bus stop at the Clayton Government Center. “Buses take forever out here.”

MARTA’s impact in Clayton 

Average monthly ridership in 2018: 233,000 people

Number of bus routes: 13

Collections from penny sales tax in 2018: $51.7 million

Upcoming plans: Bus rapid transit, commuter rail, more shelters and benches