Clayton residents want buses back

After going for more than a year without a mass transit system, many Clayton County residents see the transportation referendum as an opportunity to bring back what many counties take for granted — local bus service.

But county officials say they aren’t just thinking locally. They hope if a new penny sales tax is passed, that they can benefit from a regional commuter rail and several road-widening projects that will combine their needs with those of neighboring Fayette and Henry counties.

“It was my effort to produce projects that would be of greatest benefit to our [metro Atlanta] region and others,” said Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, a member of the regional transportation roundtable — which will decide the final project list for the 2012 referendum.

“The most important [project] for the county and the region is bus transit for Clayton. It will connect the southern crescent of the region to the airport, Atlanta and northern arteries.”

There’s no guarantee that these projects will even make the final cut.

Clayton has about 131,000 registered voters — less than 6 percent of the region’s total — but Clayton had the region’s third-highest turnout (21 percent) in the July 2008 general primary. Having local bus service on the final project list could generate a higher turnout.

But what about the money?

Though about 67 percent of Clayton residents indicated in a straw poll last fall they’d be willing to pay to join MARTA, there are doubts.

The last thing Clayton County residents Lovette Bennett and Larry Gissentanna want is more taxes. “We are simply taxed enough already,” said Bennett, a legal secretary. Clayton has a 7 percent sales tax, including a penny tax for some 20-plus road and building projects.

Bennett and Gissentanna say they are willing to pay an extra penny sales tax if it helps pave the way for a more unified regional transportation system with improved roads and smoother commutes.

However, they say the money can’t be spent largely on projects that benefit the Northside. Clayton County must get some sort of public transit, a theme that’s obvious in the county’s transportation “wish list” drawn up for the referendum. A little more than a third — $346 million — of Clayton’s $1.1 billion wish list would go to transit projects, including a commuter rail service.

“Enough is enough,” said Gissentanna, an environmental engineer who lives in Lake Spivey. “Economic growth needs to start on the Southside. We’re almost to Macon, and we don’t have a rail system. I don’t want to pay a penny tax only to have a regional rail that goes to Chattanooga.”

He and his 18-year-old daughter, Shamiya, take the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, or GRTA, bus to downtown Atlanta, where he works and she attends Georgia State University. A long-haul commuter service, the GRTA system primarily provides express service to downtown Atlanta from various park-and-ride spots.

But Clayton residents are missing their former local bus service, C-Tran, which made numerous local stops throughout the county as well as the airport. Clayton officials ended the service in March 2010 to save the financially strapped county millions of dollars.

A new local bus service is one of the wish list items.

“This will be an answer to C-Tran, but without regional planning and funding, it just doesn’t make sense,” Commissioner Wole Ralph said in March shortly after the board voted on the wish list.

Clayton County’s wish list also calls for an assortment of road improvements, including overpasses and smoother flow on Tara Boulevard, one of its major arteries.

With the Tara “Super Arterial” project, drivers would be able to travel northbound on Tara Boulevard from Ga. 54 to I-75 without stopping at traffic lights. There also would be smaller roads on each side of Tara for local traffic, said Jeff Metarko, Clayton’s transportation and development director.

While Clayton’s local roads would become easier to navigate, residents understand the need for having transit systems — rail included.

“I know how important the rail system is to the area,” said Bennett, a former MARTA patron who now rides GRTA to her job in downtown Atlanta.

Commuters aren’t the only ones concerned about rail. The largest industry in Clayton County as well as the region as a whole is logistics, said Grant Wainscott, director of the Clayton County Department of Economic Development.

The international terminal set to open next year at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, continuing improvements to I-75 and Porsche’s announcement that it will move its headquarters to the metro area’s southern crescent are signs that moving goods between the airport and the Port of Savannah are major priorities, Wainscott said.

Clayton’s wish list includes Conley Road widening and interchange projects for easier access from I-285 to the airport.

“It’s not that we don’t value mass transit, but logistics is the economic driver that will bring in the jobs for those commuters to go to,” Wainscott said. “Rail lines can solve both of those issues.”

Willis Swint, a longtime Jonesboro resident and business owner, sees challenges in winning support for a new tax.

“It’s going to be hard for anybody to vote for additional taxes whether it’s transportation or not,” said Swint, whose family owns Swint Feed and Garden Supply in downtown Jonesboro. “People are already paying high taxes. I don’t know how they think it’s going to work. They’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Those sentiments seem to be shared throughout the Southside. Clayton County is sandwiched between Fayette County, which appears bent on preserving its mostly rural charm, and Henry County, where officials wonder how much they would benefit from a light rail line since their county is so spread out.

Lake City Mayor Willie Oswalt is on the roundtable with Bell. Oswalt concedes “it will be a massive task” persuading people — especially those already paying a penny tax for MARTA in Fulton and DeKalb — to take on additional taxes in a region with divergent transportation needs.

“This transportation bill is not perfect,” Oswalt said. “But it’s a good start to try to get some of the congestion out of the way. We’ve got to spend a lot of time getting voters educated about what needs to be done.”

Staff writer Johnny Edwards contributed to this article.

Clayton County

  • Incorporated: Nov. 30, 1858
  • Population: 259,424
  • Total area: 142.6 square miles
  • County seat: Jonesboro
  • Interstate lanes: 176.18 miles

Projects to watch

  • Local bus service: It will connect the southern crescent region to the airport, Atlanta and the northern arteries, $183 million
  • Commuter rail: The first leg of a multiregional community rail, $157 million
  • Conley Road widening and interchange projects connecting I-285 to the airport. Combined cost of the two projects: $100 million
  • Tara Boulevard "Super Arterial," I-75 to Ga. 54: More than 110,000 cars travel this multicounty thoroughfare each day, $254 million
  • Ga. 85 widening, Adams Drive to I-75, $34 million
  • New Jonesboro Connector, From Flint River Road and Tara Boulevard to Lake Jodeco Road, $8 million
  • Ga. 85 widening, Roberts Drive to Ga. 279 (Fayette), $28 million
  • Tara Boulevard widening, Ga. 54 to Ga. 81 (Henry), $36 million
  • Ga. 42 widening, Anvilblock Road to Lake Harbin Road, $53 million
  • McDonough Road widening, Ga. 54 (Fayette) to Tara Boulevard, $71 million

Search projects and leave your comments

Cities and towns submitted their wish lists in March: more than 400 projects worth up to $29 billion or more. Go to to see which projects hit closest to home and which have regional effects.