Clayton’s yes vote for MARTA sales tax ‘a turning point’ for regional transit

By Maria Saporta

The year 2014 easily may be the year that MARTA and transit gains significant new ground in metro Atlanta.

The first solid indication that the times, they are a changing came Saturday morning when the Clayton County Commission, at specially-called meeting, voted 3-to-1 to place a full-penny MARTA tax on the Nov. 4 ballot.

If the tax is approved by voters, which some Clayton insiders were predicting would garner at least two-thirds of the popular vote, then Clayton would become the first new government to join the MARTA system in more than 40 years.

Over the past several weeks, the question of whether Clayton would be able to move forward with MARTA was an emotionally-filled roller coaster ride of “will they or won’t they,” and as the deadline for Clayton and MARTA approached, the issue grew in intensity and significance.

Left to right: MARTA Chair Robbie Ashe, Clayton Chair Jeff Turner, Clayton Vice Chair Shana Rooks, Clayton COO Arrelle Anderson and MARTA CEO Keith Parker after the vote (Photos by Maria Saporta)

Left to right: MARTA Chair Robbie Ashe, Clayton Chair Jeff Turner, Clayton Vice Chair Shana Rooks, Clayton COO Arrelle Anderson and MARTA CEO Keith Parker after the vote (Photos by Maria Saporta)

It no longer was just about Clayton. It became about the regional future of MARTA and what precedence would be set by its agreement with Clayton.

As the vote was in its final week, MARTA’s board developed a set a guiding principles that would apply to any other county or jurisdiction interested in joining the MARTA system. If they want to be part of MARTA, they will have to join as full partners — contributing a fully penny sales tax — the same that Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb have been investing in the system since they voted to become part of MARTA in 1971.

In short, it was a nicely-sealed note addressed directly to Cobb and Gwinnett counties. There will be no discounted fare for counties interested in making a half-hearted investment in MARTA or transit.

It also sets precedence for joining MARTA without charging new jurisdictions a “cost of entry” fee to help pay for the existing multi-billion dollar transit system that residents in Clayton County will now be able to access. In many cities across the country, when a legacy transit agency expands into a new area, a cost of entry is required.

GDOT's Dana Lemon before the vote

GDOT’s Dana Lemon before the vote

But the Atlanta region has been unlike other cities across the nation. Historically it has been hesitant to welcome a metro transit system that stretches beyond its two most urban counties.

And that’s why the Clayton vote marked a major moment for our region.

“This is a very significant turning point for the region and the expansion of transit in the region,” said Dana Lemon, a Clayton resident who has served on the board of the Georgia Department of Transportation since 2003 – the first woman ever to serve on that board.

“I feel confident that we will see other areas in the region give serious consideration to turning to MARTA for their transit needs,” said Lemon, who has chaired DOT’s intermodal committee. “It’s going to open some doors.”

When asked about the potential impact of Saturday’s vote, Clayton Commission Chair Jeff Turner was cautious saying that the MARTA tax still needed to be approved by voters.

“It has the potential of being a turning point for Clayton,” Turner said. “There was no way I was going to let this opportunity pass us by.”

Standing strong: Shana Rooks and Jeff Turner

Standing strong: Shana Rooks and Jeff Turner

At Saturday morning’s board meeting, the crowded room was filled with anticipation and concern about which way the vote might go. Had it failed, pro-transit advocates would have unrolled large “Recall” posters directed to the commissioners who had voted against it. Recall petitions also had been printed up – ready for signatures – just in case.

Two people who weren’t worried about the outcome were Turner and Shana Rooks, vice chair of the commission. Sonna Singleton had told them before the meeting started that she was ready to support having a MARTA referendum for a full penny on the November ballot.

“I knew before the vote,” Rooks confided. “She showed a real willingness to listen to her constituents. What we have done, we have just allowed voters to make the decision.”

That also could signal a real change of heart in the region for MARTA, a transit system that has been much better respected outside of Georgia than it has inside the state.

MARTA CEO Keith Parker; Roberta Abdul-Salaam of Friends of Clayton Transit; and Nathaniel Smith of Partnership for Southern Equity

MARTA CEO Keith Parker; Roberta Abdul-Salaam of Friends of Clayton Transit; and Nathaniel Smith of Partnership for Southern Equity

“From my perspective, what we are doing as an agency is taking away any legitimate reason for any one to not be partners with us,” said Keith Parker, MARTA’s general manager and CEO, adding that includes putting the agency on a sound financial footing as well as improving its customer service, safety and the way it is viewed within the region. ‘I think we are removing all legitimate reasons of what they can say about not joining us.”

The Clayton experience also showed the power of getting a host of advocacy organizations working together to support MARTA and transit – an alliance that can be revived for future possible expansions.

Colleen Kiernan, director of the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club, sent out an email to supporters on Saturday after the vote, asking them to thank the three commissioners who voted yes that morning.

Lee Biola of Citizens for Progressive Transit; Colleen Kiernan and Brionte McCorkle - both of the Sierra Club - shed tears of joy after vote

Lee Biola of Citizens for Progressive Transit; Colleen Kiernan and Brionte McCorkle – both of the Sierra Club – shed tears of joy after vote

She said the Sierra Club ‘s involvement in the effort was part of a larger coalition of umbrella of the Friends of Clayton Transit, a coalition that also includes Former State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam, Citizens for Progressive Transit, Southern Environmental Law Center, Georgia Stand-Up, the Partnership for Southern Equity, the Center for Transportation Excellence, and many committed grassroots advocates in Clayton County and beyond.”

Kiernan went on to say that for a region that defeated the T-Splost in July 2012, this can be viewed as part of the “Plan B” – a plan the region has been seeking.

Meanwhile, another encouraging development occurred last week.

A possible commuter rail route for Clayton

A possible commuter rail route for Clayton

Georgia Rep. Ed Lindsey announced on July 2 that he was stepping down from office six months early because he had agreed to accept an appointment from House Speaker David Ralston to work on a “Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Funding Infrastructure for Georgia.”

In announcing his new role, Lindsey wrote: “Our transportation challenge in the 21st Century is to avoid drowning in the commuter quagmire created by our earlier success and emerge with solutions that will take us to even greater heights on the national and international stage.”

Could 2014 also be the turning point for the state to become a partner in metro Atlanta’s transit infrastructure? Could the state be open to investing in the expansion of MARTA as way to keep our region competitive?

What a turning point that would be. Maybe the times, they really are a changing.

Looking north at the historic Jonesboro train station with rails leading to Atlanta

Looking north at the historic Jonesboro train station with rails leading to Atlanta

Looking south along the railroad tracks to the historic Jonesboro train station

Looking south along the railroad tracks to the historic Jonesboro train station

A closer view of the historic Jonesboro train station - commuter rail could revive towns along the rail corridor

A closer view of the historic Jonesboro train station – commuter rail could revive towns along the rail corridor

Enjoying the moment - advocates celebrate a step forward for MARTA and Clayton. Clayton Chair Jeff Turner plays around with folks who helped build support for MARTA in his county. Left to right: Robbie Ashe, Rhonda Briggins-Ridley , Deborah Scott, Maceo Williams, Roberta Abdul-Salaam’s arm around Turner, Colleen Kiernan and Keith Parker

Enjoying the moment – advocates celebrate a step forward for MARTA and Clayton. Clayton Chair Jeff Turner plays around with folks who helped build support for MARTA in his county. Left to right: Robbie Ashe, Rhonda Briggins-Ridley , Deborah Scott, Maceo Williams, Roberta Abdul-Salaam’s arm around Turner, Colleen Kiernan and Keith Parker

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

8 replies
  1. LeMondNewbold says:

    BRAVO Clayton County! I hope Cobb will follow suit or I may just invest in a home near one of those proposed commuter stops… Prices are certainly better down there right now!Report

    Reply
  2. scfranklin says:

    Cheers!
    While Clayton’s YES vote has been a long, too long time coming…. maybe metro Atlanta is a about to enter the 21st century as a sophisticated, networked  metropolis.  Can Cobb, Gwinnett, Henry, Douglass, Fayette, Paulding be far behind?
    Sure  would be good for Governor Deal to get on the “transit train” too.  HIs advocacy for metro wide transit and state funding could catapult the state’s economy into the 21st century creating jobs, reducing air pollution and with it decreasing the harm to the health of children, the medically fragile and seniors it causes, putting to rest the notion that transit connects people of diverse backgrounds who are better left in segregated communities and stimulating small business growth.    After all, a lot of the Georgia’s revenue is dependent on metro Atlanta’s business success and the personal income tax revenue collected in the Atlanta metropolis…. Just saying… Now is a good time for Governor’s bold and determined leadership.Report

    Reply
  3. maketransitregional says:

    A small correction, this is Clayton REJOINING the MARTA system. Recall the last time Clayton transit was funded by Fulton and Dekalb and MARTA had to shut it down because Clayton could not afford to pay. Hopefully the $10M spent by Fulton and Dekalb will be made whole by Clayton this time. The grants for buses were backed by GRTA and MARTA and had to be repurposed or sold. Let hope Clayton can support what they want this time financially.
    Adding Clayton is a good step, but is not regionalizing transit by any means. We need a regional fare product, comprehensive regional fare policy, single entity to manage and control regional transit, neutrally operated cost efficient clearinghouse, a single fare collection system and media that makes sense, coordinated planning and scheduling of vehicles and trains, regional on-demand transit service agreements, and more frequent availability of transit just to name a few items.
    Cobb and Gwinnett already have transit, there is no need to move them into MARTA. Cobb, Gwinnett, Clayton, GRTA, and all others need to join a new regionally operated system, not MARTA controlled. We need to learn from other large cities that have already done this. 
    “Make Transit Regional” not “Make Transit MARTA” is the best way to make progress.Report

    Reply
  4. thatguy says:

    maketransitregional
    Just to clarify.. Clayton was never officially part of the MARTA system. At one point Clayton contracted MARTA as its primary operator of the C-Tran line, but the line was ultimately planned and funded by the county. (Think MARTA coming in and running Cobb or Gwinett’s Bus lines) The difference with this, is that MARTA will now be the sole operator and planner. Clayton will just be another territory like Fulton and DeKalb as opposed to a third party contracted to run the system. It will definitely be funded because there will be a sales tax collected from those who shop within the county.Report

    Reply
  5. writes_of_weigh says:

    Why not re-coup frittered away opportunity(-ies) and  dollars? See below from Saporta Reports………..
    One
    wonders if Tom Bell knew W. Graham Claytor, Jr., former Southern
    Railway chief counsel(to D. W. Brosnan), former President, Southern
    Railway(a Norfolk Southern component railroad), former Secretary of the
    U.S. Navy, and last but not least, a former Amtrak President. One
    wonders if the two, or others, “positioned” themselves to profit from
    “deals” directly damaging to Georgia’s passenger and freight rail
    operational future(s)(in the 1970’s, and 80’s) which have cost the
    taxpayers, untold hundreds of millions of dollars by legal manipulation
    of (then)regulated passenger rail operations(anyone remember the Nancy
    Hanks or the Man ‘O War operated by NS(SOUTHERN Rwy) subsidiary Central
    of Georgia. C of GA?), yes,THAT railroad which “joined” Amtrak, only to
    discontinue multiple passenger trains and routes serving Atlanta(and
    Clayton County) from the likes of Macon and Columbus. The City of Miami,
    which at Amtrak’s inception, linked Albany, Georgia to Columbus
    Georgia, “lost” it’s passenger rail service(s), too. Mr. Friedman, an NS
    “big wig”, who has already nixed(in HIS mind at least) use of NS tracks
    to access the proposed “gulch” MMPT in downtown Atlanta by
    passenger/transit trains, now is deriding use of former Central of
    Georgia tracks through Clayton County, for heavy rail
    transit/commuter/intercity trains operated by Amtrak, into Atlanta,
    which Amtrak COULD operate, as it accepted Central of Georgia as a
    member railroad upon creation by Congress in 1970. Going this
    route(literally and figuratively) would recoup SOME of those hundred$ of
    million$. Just a thought, and a wink of a green light to innovation.
    SOUTHERN(rwy) SERVED THE SOUTH! NS? Nah. – See more at:
    http://saportareport.com/blog/2014/07/norfolk-southern-in-sound-position-if-talks-begin-over-rail-transit-in-clayton-county/#sthash.LuuepFBk.dpufReport

    Reply

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