Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Clayton County transit advocates pushing for MARTA vote

Posted By on Tue, Aug 14, 2012 at 10:10 AM

PLAN B Supporters say 1 percent sales tax in Clayton County could raise nearly $50 million each year for bus routes, future rail
  • Joeff Davis/CL File
  • PLAN B Supporters say 1 percent sales tax in Clayton County could raise nearly $50 million each year for bus routes, future rail
It seemed that Clayton County's best chance of seeing bus service return ended when voters overwhelmingly rejected the regional transportation tax. Rather than sit and lick their wounds, Clayton County leaders and transit advocates are pushing for the small county south of Atlanta to make history and join MARTA.

And they'd like to see that happen very, very soon. We're talking this November or even before.

"My primary goal and concern is to bring back public transit yesterday," says state Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam, D-Riverdale, who's working with Friends of Clayton Transit, a coalition of several groups, including residents, business owners, environmentalists, bus and rail advocates, civil rights groups and clergy, to bring back public transportation.

Abdul-Salaam and other supporters want Clayton County Commissioners to give voters a chance to decide whether they should pay an extra penny on every dollar to fund those routes — and potentially expand heavy rail or even build commuter rail lines. But Salaam stresses that county officials need to take action.

C-Tran, Clayton County's local bus system, ceased operations in 2010 after commissioners voted against funding the service during a budget crunch, leaving thousands of straphangers — many of whom lacked access to a car — with few options.

The removal of public buses from Clayton County's roads have affected every facet of life in the beleaguered county, says Abdul-Salaam, who lost her July 31 primary bid for the county chairman position. Businesses have moved or shuttered because employees and customers couldn't visit their locations without public transit. Her daughter pays $13 every day — including $10 for a "private transit" service — to get to and from graduate courses at Atlanta Tech. Abdul-Salaam says her granddaughter's starting college at Clayton State University and household conversations have regularly turned to how she'll be make it to campus.

"Occupancy is down 40 percent because so many people moved to be near public transit," she says. "Apartment buildings have banners that say 'Ask about our shuttle service to MARTA stations.'... It's a serious personal issue."

Now that it's unlikely we'll ever see a T-SPLOST again that could help fund the bus system, Salaam and other activists want county voters to reconsider bringing MARTA service in Clayton — something they rejected in the 1970s.

The process for doing so sounds simple. But it's far from easy. First, a majority of the Clayton County Commission must OK a binding ballot referendum. Abdul-Salaam and other transit advocates plan to ask the five-member body to do so tomorrow night at the commission's regularly scheduled meeting. Then voters must visit the polls and approve the referendum.

A "yes" vote would be a momentous event in MARTA's history. After decades of serving just Fulton and DeKalb counties, the transit agency would finally expand its footprint.

Strong support at the polls wouldn't be unexpected. Nearly 70 percent of Clayton voters in a 2010 non-binding ballot measure said they wanted to pay an extra sales tax to join MARTA. (County commissioners have refused to give voters a chance to cast ballots in another referendum and formally join the transit agency.)

It's worth pointing out, however, that Clayton voters on July 31 shot down the 10-county T-SPLOST, which included funding for a bus service.

If voters agree to levy a 1 percent sales tax to fund MARTA service, Abdul-Salaam and other proponents say, the county could raise between as much as $50 million each year to fund bus routes and possibly heavy-rail expansion and commuter rail toward Lovejoy. Under the T-SPLOST, Clayton would have received approximately $10 million each year to pay for bus service.

Abdul-Salaam says there are several options, including a special election. But she's urging elected officials to act soon.

Why? Clayton's levied all the sales taxes it's allowed by law. And Abdul-Salaam says Gold Dome legislation she sponsored (and which former Gov. Sonny Perdue signed into law in 2010) that allows original MARTA counties, including Clayton, to raise that cap to fund transportation expires on November 1.

To miss that deadline would most likely mean having to return to the Gold Dome when the next legislative session begins in January to ask for a second shot. And state lawmakers have already signaled that they're eager to use MARTA as a pinata (and knowing how they'll use it as leverage for other issues, a political football).

But the first step is county commissioners discussing the proposal. And that's what Salaam and supporters request.

We called Clayton Chairman Eldrin Bell, one of the metro Atlanta's biggest public transit supporters, but never heard back. He told WABE's Jonathan Shapiro last week that he still thinks Clayton transit should be part of a metrowide solution. Jeff Turner, who will face Bell in a runoff, said he supports public transportation but opposes tax increases. He wants the county to study the proposal before moving forward. We were unable to contact Commissioner Wole Ralph. His opponent, Shanna Rooks, also said she supports public transportation but requested more time to study the proposal.

Here's the letter Salaam sent yesterday to the county commission:

State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam Letter to Clayton County Commission re: MARTA, August 2012

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