After four years of residents coping without transit, Clayton now has hope

By Saba Long

On Saturday, July 5, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners made history.

With a 3-to-1 vote to place a binding referendum on the November ballot to join MARTA, the citizens of Clayton County now have the opportunity to add an important tool in their economic toolbox – full-fledged transit access, funded without burdening the county’s budget.

My mind instantly rewound four years. I was seated at a u-shaped table sitting with community activists including the Georgia Sierra Club, Citizens for Progressive Transit, Georgia STAND-UP and then State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam among others.

With the tax digest continuing to decline and the county budget in shambles, the county commission had recently voted 4-1 to end its bus contract with MARTA. The Clayton County C-TRAN bus service came to a screeching halt, much to the shock of the region. Even national media outlets took note that a major metro Atlanta county would no longer have local mass transit buses traveling through the main corridors of its cities. As a result, the group Friends of Clayton Transit was birthed.

For the rest of the year, this coalition of community leaders and a silent group of political allies (a defensive line of the operations blocking and tackling where needed), successfully pushed to put a non-binding referendum to join MARTA on the November 2010 ballot.

With C-TRAN shut down and MARTA service not available county, many of the coalition members carpooled to meetings and town halls. It took heavy lifting just to get a straw poll put on the ballot and a bit more to convince voters this was the right thing to do.

Ultimately they agreed. Seventy percent of voters approved the nonbinding referendum, and it was a win many thought would bear fruit much sooner that it did.

But for the past four years, the problem of a lack of transit in Clayton has remained.

In the meantime, a couple of entrepreneurs have provided jitney bus services in an attempt to ease the pain of Clayton’s transit-dependent citizens. People have moved, lost jobs, dropped out of school – all because of the lack of dependable, affordable public transportation.

Without access to a reliable mode of transportation, getting from Point A to Point B can be emotionally taxing. Just think back to how you’ve reacted when the car didn’t start on the first or second turn of the key.

Those emotions were on full display as Clayton residents and community activists lined up for public comments at MARTA and Clayton board meetings to share stories of individuals walking for miles to get to a medical appointment or to work.

If all the boxes are checked – passage by voters in November and the approval by the three jurisdictions that MARTA represents (Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb) – Clayton will become the first county to join MARTA since its inception.

In reality, this outcome is bigger than one county. Fixing Clayton’s transit problem will surely generate economic advantages for neighboring counties. And it will bring a much-needed win to a region needing a transportation boost.

Note to readers: Saba Long worked on the unsuccessful campaign to pass the Transportation Investment Act in 2012. She now is a communications professional who is providing external and internal support to MARTA and other organizations.

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