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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.