Wednesday, July 2, 2014

MARTA, Clayton County in half-penny showdown

Posted By on Wed, Jul 2, 2014 at 9:35 AM

Clayton County Chairman Jeffrey Turner said hes still hopeful that MARTA and the county can agree on a tax question to put up for a countywide referendum.
  • Maggie Lee
  • Clayton County Chairman Jeffrey Turner said he's still hopeful that MARTA and the county can agree on a tax question to put up for a countywide referendum.
The Clayton County Commission decided in a 3-2 split Tuesday night that it won’t ask voters for any more than a half-penny sales tax to bankroll MARTA expansion, while the MARTA board is poised Wednesday morning to turn Clayton down unless it brings a whole penny like DeKalb and Fulton.

To put any question on the Clayton County ballot in November, both sides would have to organize subsequent special meetings and vote approvals by a July 6 deadline.

A half penny would pay the bills for buses only. A full penny would fund buses plus a rapid transit option such as commuter rail.

“I feel strongly that MARTA will not approve a half cent, particularly not for 50 years,” said MARTA Board of Directors Chair Robert Ashe on Tuesday night.

The 12-member board consists of delegates from Atlanta, DeKalb and Fulton, plus two state transit officials.

“If they vote it down tomorrow we will have time to go back to the drawing board,” said full penny supporter and Commission Chair Jeffrey Turner.

“I just have my fingers crossed that some form of this tax will pass. We need transit in Clayton County,” Turner continued.

A full penny would bring Clayton’s sales tax up to 8 percent, on par with Atlanta and a cent above DeKalb.

“I don’t feel comfortable with an 8 percent sales tax in this county … when our neighbors have 6 percent and 7 percent,” said Commissioner Sonna Singleton just ahead of her vote for the half-penny proposal.

Turner said he was satisfied with the contract MARTA offered: use roughly half of a penny sales tax for buses and put the other half in escrow pending setup of a rapid transit option.

One rapid transit option MARTA had proposed was negotiating with Norfolk Southern for use of their freight rails or right-of-way for passenger train service from East Point to Jonesboro. The other was “bus rapid transit:” buses that speed along artery roads in dedicated lanes.

But Norfolk Southern took issue with MARTA’s estimate that it could run basic rail service in as little as six years at a cost of $270 million. More frequent trains and MARTA-only tracks would take more like ten years and $350 million.

Those figures are “likely to be dramatically understated,” read a letter from Norfolk Southern General Director of Passenger Policy John Edwards to MARTA. (Read it here: Page 1 Page 2)

MARTA CEO Keith Parker said he stands by the figures.

The MARTA board meeting is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m.

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