By Maria Saporta
At a specially-called meeting Wednesday morning, the MARTA board held firm: Clayton County must contribute a full-cent sales tax to become part of the regional transit system.
The resolution intensifies the high stakes, holiday weekend drama about whether MARTA is in Clayton County’s future. The only way for a MARTA question to be on the November ballot would be for the Clayton Commission to convene a special meeting by Sunday, July 6 and agree to the full-penny MARTA sales tax proposal.
At the Clayton County Commission meeting Tuesday night, that board voted 3-to-2 for a half-penny MARTA sales tax to be levied over the next 50 years. The members in the minority — Chairman Jeff Turner and Vice Chair Shana Rooks — favored the full-penny option.
The three commissioners who favored the half-penny option were: Gail Hambrick, Sonna Singleton and Michael Edmondson. They said that increasing Clayton’s sales tax to 8 percent would have a negative economic impact on the county.
The MARTA board rejected Clayton’s half-penny option Wednesday morning, a move that MARTA Chairman Robbie Ashe had predicted would happen when he was at the Clayton Commission meeting.
The reason? First, MARTA’s legal counsel, Elizabeth O’Neill, said there was some question as to the legality of the transit agency’s ability to enter into such a contract with Clayton County for 50 years with the condition that the half-penny be restricted to just being spent in that county.
Second, several board members questioned whether it was fair for Clayton to be able to join the system at half a penny when the three other jurisdictions — the City of Atlanta, Fulton County and DeKalb County — had been paying a full-penny sales tax for the past four decades.
But representatives from the Sierra Club argued that MARTA should not punish the residents of Clayton County for the actions of three commissioners — arguing that a half-penny sales tax that would bring back bus service to the county — was better than nothing.
“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” appealed Colleen Kiernan, Georgia director of the Sierra Club, who has been working tirelessly to get transit in Clayton County.
But several board members said that their respective government bodies — Fulton, DeKalb and Atlanta — would not support a half-penny option. They then voted unanimously to reject the resolution that had been approved by the Clayton County Commission Tuesday night.
The MARTA board then passed a second resolution that said it would welcome Clayton County into the regional transit system if it were to approve a full-penny sales tax.
MARTA has said that a full penny would be able to cover the costs of a robust bus system as well as commuter rail service. MARTA’s commuter rail proposal, however, was disputed by Norfolk-Southern, which owns the tracks between Atlanta and Lovejoy, as not being realistic in cost or timing.
Norfolk-Southern’s amazing ability to try to derail passenger trains whenever they appear to be a real option for Georgia is a subject for a future column (with my point of view based on years of watching the railroad at play).
It is common knowledge that Norfolk-Southern had been willing to negotiate with the state for the past 15 years to buy this corridor because the railroad said it no longer needed that duplicate line.
Even in its letter to the Clayton Commission, Norfolk-Southern acknowledged that “the S Line capacity, whether currently used or not, is critically important for Norfolk Southern freight service.”
When passing its full-penny resolution, MARTA’s board agreed to set aside the revenues of the half-penny in an escrow account that would only go towards a commuter rail or high capacity transit service in Clayton County, and that money would not be able to be spent anywhere else in the MARTA system.
Now that the MARTA board has passed its full-penny resolution, the ball is back in Clayton’s court.
The Clayton Commission has to have a meeting by Sunday, and it would have to either vote for or against the MARTA resolution.
As of 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Chairman Turner had not been able to schedule a meeting.
“I’m trying to get consensus from my board to have a special called meeting, but I have only heard back from Rooks,” Turner wrote me in an email.
The choices now aren’t between a half-penny for bus service and a full penny for bus and rail service.
The choices now are for a full penny for bus and commuter rail (or another form of high capacity transit) or for the status quo – being the only one of the region’s five core counties without its own transit service.
Pro-transit residents of Clayton County were targeting their focus on the three commissioners who voted for the half-cent option.
“They are the same three who voted to shut down C-Tran,” said Roberta Abdul-Salaam, a former state representative who broke into tears when talking about Clayton residents not having access to transit. She blamed the Clayton commissioners, and said that MARTA’s board has done something it never has done before by agreeing to put revenues in an escrow account that would only be spent in Clayton County.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to bring a world-class transit system to Clayton County and to bring in Clayton County as full partner with a seat at the table,” Ashe said. “This would be the first system expansion in 40 years. We have to make sure we do this right.”