MARTA expansion to go before Clayton voters

Clayton County commissioners on Saturday voted to place a historic MARTA referendum on the ballot in November, enabling voters to decide whether to pay an extra one-cent sales tax to bring rail and bus service to their county.

If they approve the measure Nov. 4, voters will kick off the first expansion of MARTA beyond DeKalb and Fulton counties since the agency began operating 42 years ago.

Public officials, transit and environmental advocates, unions and others have been working for years to bring MARTA service to Clayton. Roberta Abdul-Salaam, the founder and president of Friends of Clayton Transit, said the 3-1 commission vote means Clayton residents have “another chance for hope.”

“It means the world for the community, for the economic outlook of the county, and it means opportunity for the citizens,” she said.

Two of three surrounding jurisdictions — Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb — must also agree before a deal can be finalized. MARTA officials said Saturday they expected to receive the necessary approvals.

Clayton commission Chairman Jeff Turner and Commissioners Sonna Singleton and Shana Rooks voted for the penny sales tax. Commissioner Michael Edmondson, who raised questions about whether Clayton was guaranteed rail service and how the tax money would be spent, dissented. Commissioner Gail Hambrick was absent.

On Tuesday, Clayton commissioners had approved putting a half-cent sales tax on the November ballot. That would only have funded bus service, MARTA officials said. MARTA board members on Wednesday rejected that option, saying it was unfair to existing jurisdictions who have paid a one-cent sales tax for decades.

But the MARTA board did approve a one-cent sales tax agreement Wednesday that ensures unspent sales tax money collected in Clayton will be kept in a separate escrow account, to be used only for the purposes of expanding "high-capacity passenger service" in Clayton. That's the agreement Clayton commissioners approved Saturday, one day before the deadline for doing so.

If no deal was reached, the state legislation enabling Clayton to increase its sales tax to 8 percent, pending voters’ approval, would have expired. The sales tax rate would stay at 7 percent, and Clayton would remain the only core metro Atlanta county without local public transportation.

Commissioner Singleton had previously rejected the full-penny tax in favor of a half-penny tax but voted for the full-penny tax on Saturday. She said she still had “grave concerns” about the agreement. “It’s not a change of heart,” she said of her vote Saturday. “It’s giving the citizens an opportunity to vote.”

If voters approve the measure, MARTA will begin offering limited bus service in March 2015 and full bus service soon after. The contract the county and MARTA signed Saturday does not set a deadline for starting commuter rail or similar transit service.

“They have committed to keep Clayton County involved,” Turner, the commission chairman, said of MARTA. “I am satisfied with the terms of the agreement and I am committed to working hand in hand with them to bring the best transit system to Clayton County.”

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