Lawmakers support Clayton/MARTA deal, raise questions of equity

By David Pendered

State lawmakers who oversee MARTA expressed a few reservations Tuesday as they generally applauded the potential of MARTA extending its service into Clayton County.

The goal of extending heavy transit to Jonesboro could be met by serving it with buses, MARTA GM Keith Parker told state lawmakers Tuesday. File/Credit: Maria Saporta

The goal of extending heavy transit to Jonesboro could be met by serving it with buses, MARTA GM Keith Parker told state lawmakers Tuesday. File/Credit: Maria Saporta

“This is a major step forward for transit in the region,” said state Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Brookhaven), who chairs MARTOC, the Legislature’s MARTA oversight committee. “Hopefully this is a sign of good things to come in terms of transit in metro Atlanta.”

Two issues of potential concern arose during the Tuesday meeting: First, the notion of MARTA and Clayton County agreeing that half of Clayton’s transit tax be spent only in Clayton; Second, whether Clayton County can really expect heavy rail to be built, at a time heavy rail is a distant prospect elsewhere in the MARTA system.

MARTOC met just three days after Clayton County’s Board of Commissioners agreed Saturday to call a referendum that puts a proposed 1 percent transit tax on the November ballot

The two concepts raised by lawmakers touch on issues of fairness, or equity.

  • The first touches on the idea that a county can reserve its capital improvement funds to benefit only itself, rather than the entire transit system. This is a novel concept for MARTA.
  • The second speaks to the emerging premise that the next heavy rail line will be built in Clayton. MARTA has previously has indicated intentions to expand heavy rail service in a number of areas: Two routes in DeKalb County, with one alignment running toward Emory University and another alignment running east from downtown Atlanta along I-20; Two routes in Fulton County, with one running north along Ga. 400 and another running west from the Hamilton E. Holmes Station to the jobs centers at Fulton Industrial Boulevard.
Rep. Lynne Riley

Rep. Lynne Riley

To address those issues quickly:

Rep. Lynne Riley (R-Johns Creek), a MARTOC member, expressed the point about setting aside 50 percent of Clayton’s capital payments for use only in Clayton County. The other jurisdictions don’t benefit from such a lock box.

  • MARTA’s assistant GM for legal services, Elizabeth O’Neill, responded: “Quite frankly there is a gray area there.”

Jacobs asked about the likelihood of MARTA extending heavy rail into Clayton County at a time other heavy rail routes have been identified, including the extension of the North Line in Jacobs’ district.

  • MARTA GM Keith Parker responded: “It doesn’t have to be [heavy rail]. That would be mutually agreed upon by Clayton and MARTA. … We’re also seeing nice looking, and high quality, [bus rapid transit] options. We want to present and let Clayton see what looks best for them.”

The Sierra Club of Georgia has expected that terms of the deal will evolve over time, according to Colleen Kiernan, who heads the Georgia chapter.

That said, the transit advocates have scored a major victory by gaining a ballot initiative on transit just two years after the Atlanta region rejected a proposed 1 percent transit sales tax.

Following are the full statements of Kiernan, after the meeting, and Jacobs, at the outset of the meeting:

Rep. Mike Jacobs

Rep. Mike Jacobs

Kiernan:

  • “We are excited about commuter rail, generally, as it is an appropriate technology to connect a place like metro Atlanta, which is characterized by lots of counties with historic downtowns with street grids that would be excellent candidates for redevelopment into transit oriented communities. Examples are Lawrenceville, Marietta, Jonesboro, Griffin, Macon (and others), where one could get to Atlanta easily.
  • “We are optimistic that the commuter rail will happen and provide the spark for projects like the ‘Brain Train,’ Columbus, Chattanooga, and maybe others.”

Jacobs:

  • “This is a major step forward for transit in the region. It took some getting there – a half penny vote and MARTA holding line to bring a new jurisdiction in. Should voters approve, under the same terms as Fulton and DeKalb counties, I would laud MARTA for its efforts and making sure everyone operating on same terms. In terms of expansion of MARTA system and transit in Atlanta, that has to start somewhere and I’m glad to see Clayton is first system, other than Fulton and DeKalb, to take the plunge.
  • “Hopefully this is a sign of good things to come in terms of transit in metro Atlanta.”

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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