Supporters of a referendum that would expand MARTA to Clayton County were jubilant Tuesday after returns throughout the night showed the measure passing by a wide margin.
Pro-transit advocates declared victory at the Friends of Clayton Transit election watch party at Riverdale Town Center, where a crowd of more than 100 volunteers, organizers, politicians and MARTA officials gathered in the ballroom and noshed on finger foods.
Clayton, if results hold, will become the first new county to add MARTA since the agency began operating in DeKalb and Fulton in 1971. Some said they hoped that strong voter approval would be a potential bellwether for the Atlanta region’s shifting attitude toward MARTA. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a key supporter of the referendum, also made an appearance at the celebration.
“People recognized the opportunity to increase travel options was something they wanted to say yes to,” said Colleen Kiernan, director of the Sierra Club’s Georgia Chapter.
Of metro Atlanta’s five core counties, Clayton is the only one that lacks a local public transit system. A county-operated bus system, C-Tran, was dissolved in 2010 due to lack of funds. Supporters have been going door-to-door campaigning since July. MARTA supporters hope the transit line will spur economic development and revitalization.
“I think this will be a great opportunity for the citizens of Clayton and MARTA to join together in a historic partnership,” MARTA CEO Keith Parker said.
Organized opposition to the referendum never materialized. However, individuals who voiced opposition cited fears that raising the sales tax could drive away business and that bringing MARTA service to Clayton could usher in more crime.
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The vote means Clayton’s sales tax will rise from 7 percent to 8 percent, starting in March. The MARTA tax is expected to generate proceeds of about $45 million per year.
Half the money will finance limited bus service starting in March and full bus service the following year. The other half will be set aside for a future commuter rail or a comparable form of high-capacity service (such as bus rapid transit).
“This means hope for the young people who want summer jobs but can’t get to them,” said Friends of Clayton Transit founder Roberta Abdul-Salaam. “It means independence for senior citizens who feel trapped. It means opportunities for businesses that have been dependent on foot traffic. It puts the county at a stronger position regionally.”
MARTA will holding public hearings in December to get input from the community on the location of bus routes and stops.
Two of the three MARTA jurisdictions — Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb — still have to approve the deal before it can be finalized.
MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe said that the transit agency’s sights are now set on making sure they deliver first-class service to Clayton County.
“Tonight’s the night to celebrate,” Ashe said. “Tomorrow, the hard work starts.”
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