Confident MARTA’s coming

Jeffrey Turner expects opposition to MARTA’s expansion into Clayton County to surface in the months before November’s sales-tax referendum, but he isn’t aware of any right now.

Still, he waits. “They (opponents) might be circling the wagons,” the Clayton County commission chairman told me last week, adding that “I fully expect” critics and anti-tax crusaders to be heard from.

He doesn’t seem worried.

Last month, minutes after Clayton commissioners voted 3-1 to let residents vote on a one-cent sales tax increase that would raise nearly $50 million annually and bring MARTA to Clayton, Turner predicted the measure would pass with 75 to 80 percent of the vote. That’s a pretty big number. But seven weeks later, Turner sticks to it. He remains that confident.

“Absolutely,” he says, sitting in his office one recent morning. “The citizens have been very supportive since that time. A lot of them have come to me and actually thanked me and those of us on the board who voted for the measure to get it on the ballot, for giving them the opportunity to vote for transit.”

Turner says he heard from seniors who couldn’t get to doctors’ appointments and hospitals once the county shut down its C-TRAN bus system in 2010 (before Turner was elected). He heard from students who couldn’t get to Clayton StateUniversity. He heard from workers who could no longer get to work at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

“We have one of the highest unemployment rates in the state in Clayton County,” Turner says. “Now you ask yourself, with Clayton County having the airport in our county with thousands of jobs, why is our unemployment rate so high? One of the reasons is because we can’t get our citizens to the airport to get the jobs. Many of them are not blessed enough to have cars. There’s no transit system.”

A former Clayton County police chief, Turner ran for chairman on a platform that included the return of transit. Now that the ballot is primed to allow that to happen, he’s not taking any chances. He’s talked with organizations — Partnership for Southern Equity, Friends of Clayton County Transit, the Sierra Club — that want to educate voters on the benefits of transit, including enchanced mobility and economic development.

“We all know that in Clayton County, we have been underdeveloped over the years,” Turner says.” “This is a great opportunity for us to bring in new development. We have a great county here. It’s a county of opportunity. We have space to grow.”

He doesn’t take an impending sales-tax hike lightly, though. “We’re going to be at 8 cents, the equivalent of what the city of Atlanta is. That is high. But for growth and prosperity’s sake, sometimes you have to make an investment. I think a lot of the citizens get it; we have to reinvest. There are 45 counties in the state that are at 8 percent. And if we make that jump, let’s make sure we invest our money in Clayton County.”

Turner says he has not heard much from MARTA at this point. The transit agency, he says, is interested in holding job fairs to find potential employees needed for the expansion and other positions. And they have had preliminary conversations about locations for MARTA facilities in Clayton (police precincts, etc.), if the referendum is approved.

“They really don’t want to get the cart before the horse,” Turner says.

With voter approval, the watch will be on for whether MARTA can find a way to bring heavy rail to Clayton, or make do with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The county’s contract with MARTA doesn’t guarantee rail, a fact that Commissioner Michael Edmondson cited when he cast the lone dissenting vote against the referendum. (Edmondson declined to comment for this article.)

But rail is the dream for pro-transit Claytonians.

“The contract doesn’t guarantee (rail),” Turner says, “but there are some risks in everything that you do. It’s not a wasted risk in my opinion, because if we can’t absolutely get rail, then we have the other option, BRT or light rail. At some point, we’re going to have something more than just buses. We want rail. We’ll fight for rail, but … we’re addressing the needs of our citizens at the outset with buses. Our citizens are crying out now for a transit system; they want some buses rolling. When they vote for it, it’s going to happen.”

Jeffrey Turner is chairman of the Clayton County Commission.