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Lawmakers seek guidance on C-TRAN

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

The Clayton County legislative delegation is seeking direction from the Clayton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) on the future of C-TRAN, and other topics, as it heads into the next legislative session.

Members of the delegation said Monday that finding a funding solution for public transportation would be among their highest priorities, but they first want to gauge the BOC's commitment to fund and maintain the bus service.

On Monday night, at Clayton State University, the legislative delegation and the BOC sat down together in their first, joint, roundtable discussion in three years, according to state Rep. Michael Glanton (D-Ellenwood), chairman of the delegation.

Glanton told commissioners that due to stress being placed on public transportation systems around the state, funding for public transportation may be looked on favorably in the next legislative session, which begins Jan. 11. However, he said the delegation would need to have clear direction as to whether the county wants to preserve the C-TRAN bus service, which is slated to shut down on March 31, 2010.

"We still are in a posture to look at funding from the state, as well as the federal government," Glanton said Monday. "We certainly want to be able to dialogue to know as we in the delegation go downtown and begin the conversation, particularly in transportation and so forth and appropriations, that we at least know where we are headed and try to, as much as possible, work in concert with our commissioners."

In October, the BOC voted to end the C-TRAN service due to budgetary shortfalls. Commissioner Wole Ralph said Monday that C-TRAN cost approximately $10 million a year to operate and that only $2 million was covered by fare-box revenue.

"Historically, the county has used CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality) money to fund C-TRAN. Those grants have all dissipated," Ralph. "We were using [revenue from] building permits and zoning fees to fill that hole. Given the current economic situation ... that leaves us with this enormous hole."

Ralph said the board is legally unable to raise money for C-TRAN using property taxes and does not predict a big uptick in new construction. He said the board would be reluctant to fund C-TRAN without a "state funding source."

State Sen. Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale) said the county would suffer without the service. She said funding may be available for the system if commissioners show an interest.

"I have had some people call me and say Fayette doesn't have it, but Fayette never started it," Seay said. "It's a lot harder to take away something than to never have it. There are a lot of people out there who want to help us. What we need to know is, are we short or are we out of the ballpark period? We can be creative ... we don't have money for lots of stuff."

Seay said the legislature "can take steps" to fund C-TRAN if the commission expresses an interest in its preservation and is willing to "put up" some of the funds to run it.

Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said that earlier this year, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) gave the county $3.1 million in federal stimulus money, 10 percent of which could be used on maintenance and operation costs for C-TRAN. However, he said the "grant was frozen" once the BOC chose in October to end C-TRAN service.

According to Bell, the board may be able to extend the life of C-TRAN if the board can come to an agreement with the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), C-TRAN's operator, to accept the FTA funds from the county, and in turn, have MARTA use money from its capital expenditures to fund C-TRAN.

"If we could do that, we may be able to extend the March 31, 2010 date to June 30 or indefinitely," Bell said. "That would at least give the state time to react. We would have to put something in writing to the federal government before Dec. 27 or the funds will disappear."

Among several topics legislators and commissioners also discussed were: the importance of having Clayton County properly represented in the 2010 Census; combating proposed legislation which would make some state-owned facilities -- such as the State Farmers Market in Forest Park -- exempt from paying stormwater fees to local water authorities; removing a state sales tax cap which would allow the county to levy an additional one-penny tax on some sales at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport; and reevaluating a sales tax exemption on fuel sales currently enjoyed by Delta Air Lines.