"I am opposed to allowing Clayton County to come in at a one-half penny because I've got people in South DeKalb who have been paying a full penny for 35 years and haven't got rail," said Harold Buckley, a board member from DeKalb, ahead of the Wednesday morning vote. He said no transit system can be world-class without rail.
Fulton and DeKalb both levy a full penny sales tax to fund MARTA.
Clayton County and MARTA must agree by July 6 on any ballot measure for a transit tax. Clayton County voters would make the final decision in a referendum during the November general election.
But the full penny is a "firm offer," said MARTA board chair Robert Ashe. "I think this is our last opportunity to meet as a board" before the July 6 deadline.
Now with a holiday imminent and only two of five Clayton Commissioners in favor of asking voters for a full penny as of Tuesday night, the chance of a ballot measure is quickly fading.
"If you listen to the will of the people, we voted almost 70 percent four years ago," in favor of a transit penny in a nonbinding resolution, said Roberta Abdul-Salaam, a state legislator-turned-transit advocate and founding president of Friends of Clayton Transit.
"Realistically there's time, realistically there's the support of the constituents, realistically it ought to happen," she said, adding that the Friends will be working for a commission meeting by the July 6 deadline.
A penny sales tax would raise something in the range of $45 to $50 million annually, according to a transit feasibility study commissioned by Clayton County.
For that sum, MARTA offers bus service plus a rapid transit option: either commuter rail on or beside the Norfolk Southern freight rail line from East Point to Jonesboro or bus rapid transit.
About half of the tax would fund the bus service to start some time next year. The other half would be put into escrow for the rapid transit option, pending negotiations with Norfolk Southern or a Commission choice to go with bus rapid transit.
But Clayton commissioners who opposed the full penny cited a few concerns about money.
Commissioner Sonna Singleton said she's not sure about bringing Clayton's sales tax up to eight percent when all the neighbors except Atlanta charge less. Commissioner Michael Edmondson brought up a letter from Norfolk Southern that called MARTA's cost estimates "likely to be dramatically understated."
Ashe said MARTA knew any cost estimate would attract letters and criticism saying the estimate is too low and timeframe too short. But the transit agency stands by its math. (You can view MARTA's report below.)
"We have independent, well-regarded consultants who formed our feasibility study. Clayton County has their own (feasibility study). Everybody who's participating in that conversation going forward is confident that we will be able to bring commuter rail online quickly and affordably within the budget that we've identified," said Ashe.
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