For Clayton County, the cost of joining MARTA would be much more than the proposed 1 percent sales tax increase. It would cost us the opportunity to create the system of public transportation we truly need: a well-funded, first-rate bus service that serves people who have no private transportation, not just downtown commuters.
Most of those folks need to go east and west as well as north and south; they need buses that come into their neighborhoods and take them close to their jobs, schools, grocery stores and medical centers. MARTA was never intended to do that; rapid transit is for commuting downtown.
Our county desperately needs a good bus system, but MARTA and the hollow promise of rapid rail are a very wrong choice. The right alternative is to fund our own system at half the cost. With the half-cent tax increase our commissioners originally proposed (and MARTA rejected), Clayton could soon provide an even better bus service than Cobb’s and Gwinnett’s, without MARTA’s high fares and exorbitant operating costs and without seriously harming our merchants.
A sales tax totaling 8 percent would be a heavy blow to our merchants, too many of whom have already closed their doors in recent years. Clayton is a small county, and our struggling retailers compete with nearby shopping areas in Henry and Fayette. The higher tax would make goods purchased in those counties cheaper, and the difference in cost of a large purchase would influence customers to shop outside Clayton.
The MARTA contract we are asked to approve is extremely weak on specifics and guarantees, and it is designed to serve metropolitan Atlanta’s needs, not Clayton’s. Contrary to rumors that half the tax would be placed in an escrow account, MARTA would be allowed to borrow on Clayton’s sales tax pledge and use the funds not only for Clayton transit, but for MARTA’s other projects.
It would also allow MARTA to choose bus rapid transit instead of rail and to put off work on any form of rapid transit indefinitely. It provides as follows: “Should the Extension as envisioned not prove feasible, (MARTA) will develop further plans for an alternative high-capacity transit option and it shall continuously operate and maintain the system so as to make its benefits primarily available to the residents of the Metropolitan Area.”
MARTA says it will provide a bus system with half our tax money and eventually develop rail service along the Norfolk Southern railroad with the other half. If so, how many of us would both live and work or go to school within a mile of a station along that railroad? As other authorities have pointed out, rapid rail is the wrong concept for the region’s low population density. Such a system is not equipped to serve neighborhoods, apartments, schools, retail centers and commercial areas. That would require more routes and smaller and more frequent buses than a downtown commuter system is designed for.
Commuter rail service is probably not feasible anyway. In a column published in the AJC on July 8, John H. Friedmann, Norfolk Southern’s vice president of strategic planning, wrote: “As the economy has rebounded, Norfolk Southern’s freight business has grown to the point that we cannot accommodate new passenger service into Atlanta’s core, including on our line north of East Point. Port growth in Savannah, Brunswick, Jacksonville and Miami is filling up Norfolk Southern’s primary route between Atlanta and Macon, so we are planning to move more freight through Lovejoy and Jonesboro.”
Mr. Friedmann also disclosed that his company did not participate in developing a plan for commuter rail, and that the concept presented to the county is not the product of a detailed study. In short, we have no valid basis for knowing what it would cost and how long, if ever, it would take to develop. We would be waiting for promised rail service that will probably never come. People along MARTA’s promised northwest rail line have been waiting for 35 years.
Clayton County should elect to operate its own transit authority or engage a commercial service. It would provide smaller, more frequent buses that would connect neighborhoods and local businesses. Merchants would benefit from improved access to their locations, and good public transportation would greatly enhance property values. A flexible bus system could be expanded later to incorporate bus rapid transit for commuters, using express lanes and special corridors, if and when they are built. This is probably the course MARTA ultimately would take, but at twice the cost.
James Eason is an engineer and Clayton County resident.
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