Tuesday, June 24, 2014

MARTA pitches rail route, bus lines to Clayton as clock ticks

Posted By on Tue, Jun 24, 2014 at 11:48 AM

Ahead of a Clayton County Commission meeting Monday, activists showed support for transit.
  • Maggie Lee
  • Ahead of a Clayton County Commission meeting Monday, activists showed support for transit.
What kind of transit would a penny sales tax in Clayton County fund? MARTA says it'd pay for commuter rail connecting East Point to Jonesboro along an existing freight rail route and seven bus routes throughout the county. And buses could start rolling as early as March 2015 if the plan gets approval from county commissioners before July 2 and from county voters in November.

Clayton Chairman Jeffrey Turner said at a special-called meeting on Monday that he is optimistic the commission will vote to put the tax question on the ballot. But whether at a penny or half-penny, he can't say.

"I think there's still some more discussion that needs to be had in that area but I'm absolutely sure everybody on the board wants to see some form of transit," said Turner. "The key piece for me is their (MARTA's) willingness to work with us."

By the county's math, a penny would raise $46.1 million annually. MARTA's proposal divides that money among bus operations ($22 million), rapid transit operations ($12 million) and payments on bonds for capital costs ($10 million).

The draft bus map wasn't available to the public at the meeting, and is subject to change anyway. Turner expressed concern about the lack of service to south Clayton and MARTA CEO Keith Parker said they want to work with the Commission and the public to draw up the best routes.

"You will get an excellent level of bus service ... at $20-odd million a year, you'll get excellent bus service," said Parker.

Rail transit could be set up one of three ways, subject to the Commission's choice.

The first two put commuter rail on the Norfolk Southern rail right-of-way from East Point through Jonesboro. The cheaper option of those two is to share the track with freight rail at $270 million. The other is MARTA building a parallel track at $350 million. Either way, that commuter rail would interchange with the existing MARTA subway at East Point.

If neither one of those two suits the county, the third option is something yet to be determined.

"We would still end up building you a high-capacity transit option," said Parker.

That might be, for example, bus rapid transit. Parker said BRT feels and acts like a train and said the system in Cleveland has created a huge amount of economic development. There, low-riding buses cruise down a city corridor in their own lane.

If Clayton's commissioners and voters approve a half-penny instead of a full penny, it's not clear how it would be used or if the MARTA board would accept a Clayton County bringing only a half-penny when the rest of them bring a full penny.

Ahead of the Monday meeting, Friends of Clayton Transit called an interfaith prayer vigil. Some two dozen people marched around the Commission office chanting "pray for transit, stand up for transit," and entered the building with the song "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round," giving it the mood of a really small civil rights vigil.

The advocacy organization is pushing for strong public turnout at the July 1 Commission meeting, the last scheduled opportunity for the five-member panel to vote to put a question on the November ballot.

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