Clayton commissioners to vote on MARTA

Clayton County commissioners will vote Tuesday whether to put a MARTA referendum on the ballot in November — a potentially history-making decision that could move MARTA beyond Fulton and DeKalb counties for the first time in its existence.

Most commissioners are leaning toward a yes vote, since a majority of citizens who have provided feedback support the expansion.

“I think there’s some opposition, but we still probably can get it passed,” said Commission Chairman Jeff Turner said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a unanimous vote. At a minimum it will be a 3-2 vote.”

That would be welcome news for Morrow resident C.D. George, who relies on a friend to drive her to a part-time teaching job in Brookhaven twice a week. The trek can take 2.5 hours with traffic, she said. She also has to bum rides to church and area shopping destinations.

“It’s rough,” George said. “We need a better way to get around.”

If commissioners vote to go ahead with the referendum, they also must decide whether to support a full or half-penny sales tax.

A full penny would raise the county’s tax rate from 7 to 8 percent and bring in $40 million to $50 million a year — enough to pay for a both heavy rail expansion and bus service.

MARTA officials say the income could also fund a long hoped-for commuter rail to Lovejoy that would run on Norfolk-Southern freight tracks.

A half-penny would only fund bus service.

‘8 cents on the dollar scares me’

Commissioner Sonna Singleton said constituents email and call every day about the MARTA question — most of them in favor of MARTA. But she and fellow Commissioner Michael Edmondson both say they are concerned an 8 percent sales tax could drive retail business to adjacent counties with lower tax rates. And they had lingering questions about how robust the service in Clayton would be. Neither was certain yet of which way he or she will vote.

“It seems like we are challenged right now with holding on to a lot of our retail,” Singleton said. “That 8 cents on the dollar scares me.”

Details about where rail and bus routes would go haven’t been hashed out. MARTA CEO Keith Parker suggested that the county leave flexibility in the language of its contract with MARTA so routes could be changed in the future if needed. In speaking about the contract with Clayton at a June 19 commission work session, he focused on the full-penny option.

He said the bus service would be “more than double” what the county had with its old local bus service, C-Tran. And on rail service, he promised “multiple trains per day during the peak hours to start… more as the service gets more mature.”

Residents have turned out in droves in recent months at public meetings. Clayton is the only core metro Atlanta county without local bus service. C-Tran was scrapped in 2010 due to budget shortfalls.

Clayton also has the lowest median income in the metro region ($42,569); the highest unemployment rate (8.3 percent in April, compared to 5.8 in Gwinnett); and one of the highest percentages of households without a vehicle (7.5 percent).

A new era for both MARTA and Clayton?

As a result of the feedback at public meetings, a consulting firm hired to conduct a transit feasibility study concluded the majority of residents support transit. Of 870 online survey respondents, more than 80 percent wanted to establish a transit system in Clayton. Nearly 70 percent supported an increase in taxes to make it happen.

A green light from commissioners — with voter approval this fall — could usher in a new era for MARTA. The transit system was envisioned as spanning the entire metro area. But Cobb and Gwinnett rejected MARTA, so it has remained confined to DeKalb and Fulton since it first began operating buses 42 years ago.

Former state Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam, who founded Friends of Clayton County Transit around the time C-Tran folded, said public transportation is a basic necessity that Clayton residents deserve.

Her family shares a car, which means she basically runs a taxi service every day shuttling her children and grandchildren to work, sports games and doctor’s appointments. Her granddaughter had to quit attending Clayton State College when she totaled her car, Abdul-Salaam said.

“You know, it’s real stories,” Abdul-Salaam said. “It’s not just ‘oh, woe is me.’”

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