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Friday, June 20, 2014

MARTA finalizes Clayton pitch while commission clock ticks

The Clayton County Commission must decide soon if it will call a referendum on a sales tax for transit.
  • Maggie Lee
  • The Clayton County Commission must soon decide if it will call a referendum on a sales tax for transit.

Clayton County commissioners cross-examined MARTA Thursday about service and cost before the five-person panel decides whether to ask voters to approve a penny sales tax that will fund MARTA-run transit.

Commissioners must decide by July 2 whether to have a referendum and if so, to propose a penny or half-penny sales tax. Clayton and MARTA would then need to sign a contract by July 6 that tells voters roughly what they would get for their money.

"Within the next day or two we can provide you with the MARTA full cost and expectation of services," MARTA CEO Keith Parker told the assembled commissioners on Thursday afternoon. "What we draw up for you will be an estimate of miles, routes that sort of thing, but ultimately we want you to make the decision about where your routes go, what times of service, days of service, that sort of thing."

The two sides have already looked at a generic agreement, but the final details have yet to be attached.

MARTA was waiting until the presentation of a transit study commissioned by Clayton. It was published Tuesday night and says that with a full penny, Clayton County could have bus service by 2016. A robust network with buses running late into the night and frequent trains could be fully built out by 2040.

Parker estimated that with a full penny, the county could have basic, limited rail service in six years at something like $250 million, contingent on federal grants paying about half of that.

But it's not clear if Clayton would get a seat - or seats - on MARTA's board if they bring only a half-penny to the table.

"The (MARTA) Board expressed a sentiment of, if Clayton County wanted to join MARTA at a full penny, that they would be receptive," said Parker. "They have not had discussions for anything less than that."

A full penny would bring Clayton's sales tax to 8 percent. Atlanta's is also 8 percent, while DeKalb and Fulton charge 7 percent.

The penny tax would raise about $49 million annually, according to a Georgia State University study that MARTA has used.

Commissioner Shana Rooks of south Clayton asked what happens if tax revenue goes down and the penny no longer generates $49 million. "Are you guys going to come back to us and say we need to amend the routes and cut services?"

The short answer is that whatever happens to the other MARTA members - Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb - happens to Clayton, though Parker did say MARTA's budget reserves have improved in the last year and a half.

Commissioners asked Parker about other details from police staffing to the provision of bus stops, bus benches and bus shelters.

(For the record, a MARTA police force works buses and trains, and bus stops get upgraded to a bench or a shelter once ridership is high enough.)

"My reservations are still about where the money goes," Commissioner Sonna Singleton of northeast Clayton said after the meeting. "I want Clayton to be a part of MARTA, not subsidize it."

But Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Winn-Dixon, watching from the audience, wants commissioners and voters to approve MARTA.

"We need it for economic development and growth and because of the college and the disabled that need it," she said.

Congressman David Scott, D-Ga., sent his District Director Chandra Harris to the meeting to read a written message that said in part, "I urge this board of commissioners to approve a referendum for a full penny sales tax."

A half-penny, Scott wrote, is not viable as it would provide "at best an anemic and limited" bus system.

The Commission will meet again on Monday night to discuss MARTA's pending proposal.

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