By Diane Wagner
With the Atlanta-based MARTA rail and bus service running a deficit, the Georgia General Assembly may cast a wider net for funding next year.
And a new sales tax in Henry, Clayton and other metropolitan counties is one of the leading options so far.
"We believe that MARTA is the main infrastructure for transit for the region," said state Rep. George Maddox, D-Decatur. "However, Atlanta, DeKalb and Fulton have been the primary financing elements. We're trying to determine how to relieve those counties and, at the same time, bring everybody in."
Maddox, who represents parts of Henry, Clayton and DeKalb, is heading a joint study committee that hopes to propose a solution or two when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
The committee is holding a series of public informational sessions, with the South Metro presentation slated for 10 a.m. on Nov. 12 in the Henry County Administration Building.
"It's probably more of a ?listening' than a hearing, because we really want to know what people think," Maddox said. "I'd love for folks to come out and say ?hang ?em,' or whatever, just so we know."
Clayton County residents may be more willing than others to help support MARTA. Riders on the counties C-Tran buses can hop on the rail system at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
"We already have connectivity to MARTA and, from MARTA, to the (bus) systems in Gwinnett and Cobb counties," said A. Wayne Patterson, Clayton County's director of transportation and development.
Patterson said the county had expected about 500,000 C-Tran riders by now, 18 months into the operation, but recently marked its millionth customer.
Over the next six months, the county will be holding its own public hearings to determine C-Tran's next step.
"We have several routes that kind of cover the heart of the county, where most people live," Patterson said. "We'll be asking if we should modify what we currently have or expand the system."
Michael Harris, director of the Henry County Public Works Division, attended the first MARTA hearing in Atlanta early this month. Harris said any local support for MARTA would necessarily depend on whether the rail system actually benefits people in the area.
Henry is one of 11 counties partnering with the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority in a regional bus system expected to debut in the summer.
"I think a relatively small number of Henry County residents use MARTA now," Harris said. "But if you create park and ride lots, buses, a means to utilize the system, I think it will be better-accepted."
GRTA spokesman William Mecke said officials are negotiating with a contractor to drive and maintain the buses, which will link to existing services like MARTA and the Clayton, Cobb and Gwinnett bus routes.
"The goal is to create a seamless regional transportation system," Mecke said. "MARTA is the backbone of the system right now. The regional system feeds into MARTA as another piece of the puzzle."
Maddox said the legislative push to keep MARTA operating could take a number of different forms, depending on the upcoming round of public meetings. He said he realizes some counties may not welcome participation, but the dialogue is important.
"We're not trying to cram anything down anyone's throats, but attitudes change," he said. "I remember the people up Georgia 400 fought MARTA, and now they're asking for helicopters because the traffic is so bad. Henry is one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States, so what are we going to do about it? We want to know which way we should go."