By Joel Hall
As Clayton County officials prepare to make possibly drastic changes to the county's C-TRAN bus service, members of the Board of Commissioners (BOC) have different ideas as to how the system can be preserved.
While at least one commissioner said he sees public transit as a state responsibility, others said they believe the system could be preserved through local and regional collaboration.
In September, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), which is contracted to operate C-TRAN, reported that the county had under-funded the service by $1.3 million, and threatened to end its contract with the county if it did not meet the shortfall. In an effort to close the funding gap, the Board of Commissioners has proposed the elimination of routes, the elimination of weekend services, fare increases, possibly doubling the cost of paratransit service, and a six-month, $1.75 surcharge on all one-way travel.
On Wednesday, the county hosted a public hearing to give members of the public a chance to voice their opinions about the proposed changes.
The board could vote on changes to C-TRAN as early as Tuesday.
Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said the key to solving the problem may be getting the state to allow Clayton County to bypass a statewide, 7-percent sales-tax cap, thus allowing the county to levy an additional, 1-percent sales tax to fund transportation projects. He said that two years ago, the board attempted to levy an additional penny of tax on sales at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to fund C-TRAN, but was prevented from doing so because of the cap.
"It is in the MARTA Act that we could pass a local ordinance from the airport to collect a penny sales tax," Bell said. "That would allow us to collect $3 million annually from the airport. We found out, however, that we had reached our cap. I want to go back to the legislature ... I want the General Assembly to give us the authority to fund transit options.
"I'm not looking to give MARTA a penny and say go do whatever you want with it," Bell continued. "I am looking for a mechanism to fund vital transportation projects that will grow this county. Diversity and transit are two of our best potential economic options."
George Glaze, Clayton County's delegate to the MARTA Board of Directors, said public transportation has faced funding challenges since the 1965 MARTA Act, which laid the groundwork for public transportation through the metro Atlanta region. Glaze, a city attorney for College Park from the late 1960s to the late 1990s, said that while Clayton agreed to be a part of the MARTA service region, it failed to fund MARTA service during a 1971 referendum.
"There were several issues," Glaze continued. "There is a certain portion of our population that is always reluctant to impose another tax on ourselves. Just to be open about it, there was a specter of racism that got included in the discussion ... people were concerned that minorities would have access and move into Clayton. There was a plan to bring a line into Clayton County through an extension of the south line that goes through Hapeville. That line wasn't supposed to be built for 20 years, so many people thought it was too far out to fund it.
"It is my understanding that some of the local legislators are seeing if they can amend [the sales tax cap] for that specific purpose," Glaze continued. "The legal step could be that the county would have to call a referendum. It would take more than that, though. It would take the desire of elected officials and the community to have something of that nature. I think it would take some education and understanding [on the part] of the public and public officials of the value of public transit to a community."
Clayton County Commissioner Wole Ralph said that while he believes in public transit, he believes counties are obligated to provide public safety, courts, emergency services, parks, and road services as a priority. He said he believes the burden of funding C-TRAN should be on the state, rather than the county.
"New York, Maryland, Florida, Washington, D.C., Chicago ... in none of these places is the local government 100 percent responsible for the cost of funding public transportation," Ralph said. "The only reason why we were ever able to operate C-TRAN is that we were able to rely 100 percent on a federal grant ... Over time those federal funds moved to 75 percent, then 25 percent, and then to zero percent.
"In all of these places where public transit functions well, it is a state-funded priority," Ralph said. "The idea of public transit is that it is supposed to take people off of state and public highways. I think the ideal situation is for the state to embrace its responsibility to fund public transit."
Commissioner Michael Edmondson said that given the state of the economy, the commission has to carefully consider what services it wishes to keep. He said leaning on other regional transit systems may help the county avoid having to raise taxes.
"Would it be in the best interest of Clayton County citizens to raise taxes again ... I don't know, but I would be willing to have that discussion," Edmondson said. "C-TRAN is not the only public transportation system. The state is building a very large park-and-ride ... right in the middle of Jonesboro ... where people can park their car and commute to jobs in Atlanta. I am also in support of commuter rail. I am willing to consider all funding sources for public transportation in Clayton County ... but in the challenging times, we have to consider the economic situation and determine which programs would suffer due to our decreased funding."
Commissioner Sonna Singleton declined to be interviewed on Thursday. Commissioner Gail Hambrick could not be reached for comment.
State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale), a member of the House Transportation Committee, said she would like to work with the county to find a funding solution through the legislature. However, she said she believes the goals of the board have not been communicated to the public or statewide players.
"I haven't seen any proposals other than what was proposed at the public hearing," Abdul-Salaam said. "We're kind of in a pattern of waiting for the county leadership to let us know what they might have as an option. I think we can do something if we put our heads together. We're not even at that point where we are communicating and I wish we were."