By Maria Saporta
As dignitaries and Clayton County residents gathered Saturday morning for a ceremonial ribbon-cutting of MARTA beginning bus service on March 21, Angel Lemond was trying to find out when buses would start serving Clayton State University.
“It costs me between $35 and $40 a day for a taxi to get and forth to Clayton State,” said Lemond, who found out that service to the university will start in August – the same month she is set to graduate. “It’s okay. I’m getting an education. And I’ll get to ride MARTA if I decide to get a graduate degree.”
It’s hard to describe the excitement that exists in having MARTA come to transit-starved Clayton County. The county discontinued its own bus service five years ago saying it could not afford to run the system.
“My heart is filled – we have just made history,” Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon told the hundreds of people who had gathered in her town for the ribbon-cutting.
Today there seems to be near unanimous support for MARTA coming to Clayton County. So it’s hard to imagine how close it came to county not putting the MARTA referendum on the ballot.
The five-member commission was divided with some members preferring a half-penny and partial buy-in to the MARTA system and others preferring a full-penny with full participation and representation on MARTA’s board.
The MARTA board then voted that it would not accept a half-penny buy-in. So the Clayton Commission had to call a special meeting for the Saturday – the day after the July 4 holiday. The suspenseful vote ended up being three-to-one with one no-show – Commissioner Gail Hambrick – who pro-transit folks had been hoping would cast a vote in MARTA’s favor.
But Hambrick was there with her colleagues on Saturday. Asked about her MARTA vote, Hambrick said she had supported the half penny.
So how did she feel about MARTA starting service in Clayton on March 21?
“I’m happy about today,” she answered, although it was obvious she was uncomfortable discussing her role in the commission vote.
But when she was asked whether she now wishes she had been there on July 5 to vote in favor of putting MARTA on the ballot,” Hambrick finally acknowledged: “Yes I do.”
On this past Saturday morning, the mood was completely upbeat.
A jubilant Georgia Congressman David Scott (D-13th district) began by saying/singing: “How sweet it is…” The crowd cheered.
“Thank God for bringing us one of the greatest moments for Clayton County,” Scott said. “We gave notice to this region, the state and the nation that the people of Clayton County are willing to invest in their own future.”
Scott went on to say that the MARTA vote would be a turning point for Clayton County’s economy. Finally the rest of the region would recognize all the assets that it has – the world’s largest airport, one of the nation’s largest outdoor farmer’s markets as well as the nearby Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“Clayton has so much going for it,” he said. “This will let its little light shine.”
Scott urged MARTA and Clayton County to build the strongest bus system that they can – connecting Jonesboro with Morrow with Hampton with College Park.
“If you do that, I can assure you that commuter rail is coming,” Scott said, adding that he would continue doing all he could to continue getting federal financial support for a passenger rail line between Atlanta and Macon.
Although Clayton voters approved the one-cent MARTA sales tax in November voting – 74 percent to 26 percent, the tax only started getting collected on March 1.
“It normally takes about a year to get service started,” MARTA CEO Keith Parker said, adding that he had promised to start service within four months after the vote. And that’s just the beginning.
“We are going to work our hardest to get a commuter rail line started as well,” Parker said. “We are just getting started.”
Clayton’s vote also allowed MARTA to start collecting its penny tax on sales made at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport for the first time in decades. When the “new” Atlanta airport was built about 35 years ago, most of it was located in Clayton County rather than the City of Atlanta. Efforts to create a special taxing district so MARTA could collect the sales tax did not materialize.
Stell Huie, who served as MARTA’s first general counsel in the 1970s, drove down from North Carolina to be part of the Saturday’s ribbon-cutting.
“This is a big deal,” Huie said of the launch of Clayton service. “Lord knows how hard we worked for this. Now we out to be getting service to Cobb and Gwinnett counties.”