By Maria Saporta
A passionate 11th hour effort is being launched to urge the Clayton County Commission to support putting a full penny MARTA sales tax on the November ballot.
The five Clayton Commissioners are scheduled to vote on Tuesday night.
The choice is being presented in relatively simple terms. If Clayton County approves a full penny, it would become a full voting member of MARTA, and it would be able to have a combination of rail and bus transit in its future. A full penny is expected to raise up to $49 million a year.
If the commission decides to just put a half-penny sales tax on the ballot, then it would not have representation on the MARTA board, and the most it could hope for would be for a bus system.
Among those advocating for rail and the full penny is Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
“I hope that they vote for it because it would be a tremendous benefit for their residents,” the Atlanta mayor said. “They should do the full penny now. Cities of the future are investing in their infrastructure. You know where I stand on infrastructure and rail. Given the importance of our airport for Clayton County, there’s got to be a link to it.”
David Emory, president of Citizens for Progressive Transit; and Colleen Kiernan, director of the Sierra Club’s Georgia Chapter; have emerged as major proponents for the full penny.
In a joint position paper, they wrote that Tuesday’s vote is “the most important decision in its recent history.” The three options include keeping the status quo — having zero county transit (except for the state’s Xpress commuter buses); passing a half penny MARTA tax; or supporting the full penny MARTA tax.
“Rail service on the long-discussed Atlanta-Lovejoy corridor would be the centerpiece of MARTA expansion at the full penny level, and with it come many opportunities for positive local impact,” Emory and Kiernan wrote.
Leading that list of opportunities is providing transit connections for Clayton County residents to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the largest economic generator in the Atlanta region.
“By building the Lovejoy line, Clayton will take the lead in multimodal transportation investment and will offer a model for the region and state to follow,” they wrote. “The rail corridor, owned by Norfolk Southern, will continue to handle freight traffic, with all modes benefiting from the improved capacity. And critically, the Lovejoy corridor will form the initial segment of an eventual intercity rail system connecting Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson to Macon, Savannah, and points north and south – with Clayton at the very heart.”
The Partnership for Southern Equity also is encouraging its members to put pressure on Clayton Commissioners to support the one-percent MARTA sales tax.
“In short, Clayton Commissioners will have an opportunity to officially ask Clayton voters if they will support an additional 1 cent sales tax to restore public transportation,” according to flier emailed by the Partnership for Southern Equity.
“The County Commissioners have been tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that Clayton citizens have an opportunity to vote for an additional 1 cent sales tax this November,” the email said. “It is imperative that the citizens of Clayton County urge their commissioners to give them the opportunity to decide their transportation future. In the words of the late Karen Askew Partnership for Southern Equity, Clayton Hub Leader: ‘It’s Time to Get Fired Up Clayton County!’ We need you to lace up your boots and continue to march for accessible and equitable public transportation.”
The support for a full penny is far-reaching.
Bishop Jerome Dukes, chair of the Association of Christian Ministers of Clayton County, will be holding a press conference on Monday to announce his support the full penny.
Also U.S. Rep. David Scott (D – Ga.) has been working “tirelessly” on getting rail to Clayton County.
Then there are two state legislators who have been instrumental in this whole initiative. Rep. Mike Glanton (D – Jonesboro) led the effort to pass HB 1009, which gave Clayton County Commissioners the opportunity to have Tuesday’s vote.
And there’s also Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D – Riverdale), who also has been supporting transit in Clayton.
Emory and Kiernan said the rail line also would serve as a backbone for economic activity throughout the county. The Morrow stop would tie together several of Clayton’s key assets, including Clayton State University, Spivey Hall, and the National and State Archives complex. They added that the stations in Jonesboro and Forest Park would bolster existing downtown revitalization efforts, creating the type of walkable, transit-focused communities that are increasingly in demand today.
But a new wrinkle has come up that could give some of the commissioners a reason to vote against the full penny for MARTA.
Norfolk Southern has sent a letter to MARTA taking issue with some of the costs of putting passenger service on the Lovejoy rail line.
Norfolk Southern is even going so far as saying that the Lovejoy line, the one that it had been telling the state for years that it no longer needed, is now being used because of increased freight traffic.
Proponents for rail service in Clayton County believe there are ways to work through the outstanding issues with Norfolk Southern and to pursue the various options that exist. The goal would be to have those questions answered by November when voters would be going to polls.
“This letter does not say ‘show stopper,’” Kiernan said. “It just says the deal is not going to be ironed out by Tuesday, and it doesn’t have to be.”
As of now, it is thought that two of the five commissioners are supporting a full penny; one is supporting a half penny and two are undecided.
The vote will be held at 7 p.m. on July 1 at the Clayton County Commissioners board room at 112 Smith Street in Jonesboro. People are being urged to show up by 6 p.m.
Here is the letter from Norfolk Southern: