Clayton County Votes in Favor of Joining MARTA, What Next?

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(APN) ATLANTA — In the General Election on November 02, 2010, Clayton County voters voted in a nonbinding referendum upon whether or not to join the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), which since its inception has served only Fulton and Dekalb Counties.

The vote was 41,170 (67%) yes, and 19,959 (33%) no.

Clayton County voters previously had rejected MARTA in 1971 with only 23 percent of the voters in favor, according to Citizens for Progressive Transit.

This time, Clayton County had just suffered the loss of its own transit system, C-TRAN, as previously reported by the Atlanta Progressive News.

The ballot question was titled, “Whether Clayton County should become a full participant in MARTA,” and asked: “Should Clayton County become a full participant in MARTA… and levy a sales tax in support of MARTA and Clayton County’s public transportation needs?”

If Clayton joins MARTA, residents will pay an additional one cent sales tax on items purchased in Clayton County, which will to go Clayton County to fund MARTA.  Fulton and Dekalb residents already pay a one cent sales tax.  

For Clayton County, the funds raised through the one cent sales tax will be several times the amount previously used to fund C-TRAN, as much as 35 million dollars per year, according to CPT.  

It could be used to not only restore bus service, but to add rail service as well.  Cities that could be served include Forest Park, Lovejoy, Morrow, and Riverdale.

“The federal money to build it [light-rail] has been there, but there’s been no money for operations,” Lee Biola, President of CPT, told APN.  “It’s a capital grant, it’s an earmark.  Congressmen David Scott and John Lewis (D-GA) were involved in getting that money.  It was about 10 years ago, 80 million from the federal government and 20 million from the state.  But we can’t get that money until we show the government we can operate it.”

“It’s frustrating.  There’s been a complete lack of leadership for the last ten years under Perdue.  If they had allowed a bond referendum in Clayton County, we could already have been working on it.  It’s on existing tracks,” Biola said.

US Congress could decide to take the federal grant money back if not used in the near future, he said.

In the cases of all three counties which would pay into MARTA if Clayton joins–Fulton, Dekalb, and Clayton–this one percent sales tax would be separate from any additional penny they might pay for transportation as part of a special transportation district.

On May 27, 2010, former Gov. Perdue signed legislation, HB 1446, which allowed for Clayton to vote on whether to join MARTA.

The legislation, which had been sponsored by State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam, only provides, however, that the nonbinding resolution be held.  It does not state that a binding resolution be held.

A binding resolution would have to be approved first by the Clayton County Commission, Rep. Abdul-Salaam told APN.

“The nonbinding resolution sends a message that they’ve been saying all along, they’re willing to pay the sales tax, they’re willing to have fewer routes, the riders have always said that.  Getting an official vote, even though it’s nonbinding, shows the will of the citizens,” she said.

Abdul-Salaam says that the challenge in the past has been getting the Clayton County Commissioners to support public transportation, whether keeping C-TRAN operational or to join MARTA.

“That’s how we got to where we are- the Commission voted to shut it [C-TRAN] down.  The Commission had options to do something else like accept federal money [separate from the light rail funds described above] that had been offered to them in September,” she said.

“As a legislative process, we’ve done what we can do,” she said.  “We’ve got to get the County Commissioners to see what the rest of our county officials see,” she said.

“We can have world class public transit in Clayton County,” Riverdale City Councilman Wayne Hall said in a statement.

In the weeks before the election, activists passed out thousands of postcards with information about the vote at churches, festivals, rallies, and at local businesses.

“It was hard work, but well worth it,” Shegale Crute, a community activist in Clayton County, said in a statement.

Organizations which supported Clayton County joining MARTA include ACT NOW Georgia, Atlanta Transit Union, Clayton County Ministerial Association, CPT, Georgia Conservation Voters, and Sierra Club.

An ad hoc group called Friends of Clayton Transit was also formed to deal specifically with Georgia issues.

In terms of the County Commission, “It’s a 4-1 split,” Biola said.

“The Chairman Eldrin Bell has been supportive of MARTA and transit in general and the commuter rail line.  He’s very supportive.  The other four Commissioners have not been.  Wole Ralph, the Vice Chairman, was part of the group that voted to end Clayton transit.  He was part of the group that was resisting efforts to bring a bond vote last November,” Biola said.

“He [Ralph] did indicate that if voters indicated they wanted to join through a non-binding vote, that he would support have a binding vote,” Biola said.

“They [Commissioners] were saying with the regional SPLOST coming up in 2012, if they increase the sales tax for MARTA [in Clayton], they could also raise it for the area [special transportation district], so they could be as burdened as the City of Atlanta [Fulton and Dekalb].  They said it would be two pennies rather than one penny,” Biola said.

However, Biola said he doubts the regional transportation sales tax is going to pass in 2012 in Metro Atlanta, given the difficulty of finding agreement on a project list between progressives in Atlanta and Tea Party elements in other counties.

“They [Commissioners] said Clayton County had been dumped on by the region and all the poor people moved there who had been displaced by the Atlanta Housing Authority [public housing demolitions].  They had been enabled by C-TRAN.  It was the classic ‘bringing the wrong people’ argument.  It was interesting to see African American leaders making this argument,” Biola noted.

The next step for Clayton County and MARTA will be to see how Commissioners react to the non-binding vote, and whether they allow Clayton voters to take a binding vote.

(END / 2011)

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