Five years ago, Keith Best and his two sons moved 25 miles up the road, from their hometown of Riverdale to Lithonia, because Clayton County shut down its bus service.
Public transportation “ is one of the things I depend on,” said Best, who works as a security guard for MARTA. “I could drive to work, but I don’t want to.”
With MARTA service starting up in Clayton on Saturday, he’s eager to return home. Local leaders hope it will be a draw for others, too.
Transit advocates and county officials successfully lobbied for a 1 percent sales tax increase, from 7 to 8 percent, to finance a MARTA expansion by promising it would stimulate business, connect an underemployed workforce to regional job centers and entice a new generation of potential residents.
The sales tax collection, started March 1, is expected to raise about $45 million annually.
But that revenue comes at a cost — Clayton is already struggling economically.
“We had to raise taxes to get the buses back,” said Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Winn-Dixon.
But, she said, “this opens up a plethora of doors. People will be mobile again without being raked over the coals financially.”
National transportation expert Chris Leinberger said the higher tax is “one of those tough trade-offs,” but he applauded Clayton for self-financing its transportation system.
“Clayton has very intelligently chosen to tax itself to build its own infrastructure,” said Leinberger, a professor at George Washington University School of Business in Washington, D.C.. “Are you going to go to the state for that money? Not a chance. (And) the feds can barely speak to one another. The money’s going to come from local sources.”
Just three weeks after Clayton began collecting the extra tax, MARTA is starting service with 10 buses and four mobility vans on three routes. Normally, it takes a year of tax collection before service begins, MARTA Chief executive officer Keith Parker told a Clayton crowd gathered at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The transit agency is devoting about a dozen of its police officers to Clayton for the start-up and will add more throughout the year. At the same time, MARTA and Clayton law enforcement officials have worked together to address safety concerns. MARTA also has pledged to build a permanent precinct and garage in Clayton.
Eugene Johnson, owner of Mo-Jo’s Buffalo Wings in Riverdale, said he’s glad to see public transit again. A MARTA stop sits in front of his business on Ga. 85.
“Everybody around here knows we need it,” he said. “It brings people to the area. And that, in turn, may bring larger business that will prompt people passing through on their way to Fayetteville to stop in Riverdale.”
At Southlake Mall, general manager Judy Pritchett said merchants “are excited to see the return of public transportation to Clayton County.
“By offering a quality transit service, Clayton County enhances the opportunity to create a ‘live, work, play’ environment,” Pritchett said. She noted it will be especially welcome by retailers, employees, customers and Chime Solutions, a call center company based at the mall. Chime is slated to hire about 1,100 workers.
MARTA has been gearing up for the Clayton expansion ever since voters approved the tax in November by a landslide 74 percent margin.
About a dozen routes, including shuttles known as FLEX buses, will be in place by the end of 2015. Another two routes will be added by 2020. MARTA also has promised to provide some form of high-capacity transit (either bus rapid transit or heavy rail) within five to seven years.
Not only will residents be able to ride to points north, Clayton County’s seven cities will now be linked by MARTA.
Based on past Clayton ridership, MARTA projects anywhere from 9,400 to 13,000 riders the first year. The new service should make life more convenient for the roughly 800 MARTA workers who live in the area.
Many people around metro Atlanta and the nation will be watching to see if Clayton’s investment in transit pays dividends. The county is one of the poorest in the state, with the highest unemployment rate in metro Atlanta and more than a quarter of its residents living below the poverty level.
For that reason, Saturday will be an emotional day for many people, said Colleen Kiernan, Georgia Chapter director for the Sierra Club, which has worked for years with Clayton groups to help bring transit back.
“The southside of Atlanta has traditionally been overlooked and so it’s thrilling to see Clayton County take all the pieces it has available and try to make the absolute most of it,” Kiernan said.
The Clayton expansion is the first for MARTA beyond its current borders in DeKalb and Fulton counties. When the General Assembly first approved MARTA as the comprehensive transportation system for the city in 1965, it was with the intention that it would serve all five core metro counties.
However, Cobb and Gwinnett have repeatedly rejected MARTA.
If MARTA and Clayton can negotiate a deal with Norfolk Southern railway for the right of way to build a heavy rail line, it could unlock even more redevelopment. And that in turn could demonstrate MARTA’s value to counties that have been reluctant to join the system, Kiernan said.
“If Clayton County can pull it off, there are redevelopment opportunities for Forest Park and Jonesboro and around Clayton State (University),” Kiernan said. “If people can see that, I think other parts of the region will move quickly to do the same.”
Riverdale resident Cassandra Langford plans to start taking the 196 bus to reach her job at the airport. She has been spending $20 a day on cabs or other rides.
“It’ll cut down on transportation costs,” Langford said. “It’s really going to help. I can’t wait.”
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