By Joel Hall
Unless other funding sources are found to operate it, Clayton County's C-TRAN bus service will cease to exist as of March 31, 2010. On Tuesday, all county commissioners, with the exception of Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell, voted in favor of the termination of C-TRAN.
C-TRAN riders, bus operators, and other citizens crowded into the Clayton County Administration Building on Tuesday night to hear the board render its decision. The board voted 4-1, Bell opposed, on three resolutions concerning C-TRAN and its current operator, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA).
One of the three resolutions passed, according to Clayton County Staff Attorney Michael Smith, authorizes "the termination of C-TRAN service effective 11:59 p.m., March 31, 2010, and authorizes the chairman to execute all the documents necessary with MARTA to effect the termination." While the county held a public hearing on Oct. 7 to allow the public to weigh in on possible service cuts and fare increases to C-TRAN, Smith said no changes would take place until next year, when the county plans to end the service.
"The service is going to run as is until March 31, 2010," Smith said.
The other two resolutions terminate MARTA's management agreement with C-TRAN (leaving its operation agreement intact) and enters the county into a sub-grant agreement with MARTA, designating MARTA as the grant recipient of any remaining Federal Transit Administration funds.
Board Vice Chairman Wole Ralph, who made the motion to end the service, said he would reconsider the C-TRAN service if the county can find another funding source, other than the county's general budget.
"I do want to leave the option open," Ralph said prior to the vote. "There has been a lot of talk about funding C-TRAN with a penny sales tax and other methods. If, in fact, you [Bell] are able to secure non-county, governmental funding, we will revisit that vote, concerning how that non-governmental funding could make up the gap."
Tensions ran high prior to the meeting as activists, bus drivers, and C-TRAN riders rallied outside of the county Administration Building at 10 a.m., and just prior to the board's 7 p.m., meeting. New Order National Human Rights Organization, a Marietta-based advocacy group, organized prayer circles and led C-TRAN advocates in chants of "Clayton County on alert!" and "We're gonna get a recall."
"This is really a poor people's campaign," said Gerald Rose, president of New Order. "People need public transit to get to work. If they decide to get rid of certain routes, there is going to be issue, after issue, after issue."
Gary Frank, a C-TRAN bus operator, said he believes the county isn't considering the needs of its citizens.
"They need to see the record number of people riding these buses," Frank said. "I don't think they are educated on what transportation means to a community. When you cut public transit, you are going to increase crime in the area. We're falling short already. They are going to make it worse."
More than 150 people came to Tuesday night's meeting, many wearing red shirts and waving white rally towels in support of C-TRAN. Bell, who voted against the decision to terminate the service, said he believes the county should explore internal and external options to fund public transportation.
"We should pursue other funding to continue the services of C-TRAN, but those take time," Bell said. "It would take action of the General Assembly or the public to secure outside funding beyond the federal funding that we have already received.
"Our people are in desperate need of transit in Clayton County," Bell added, after the meeting. "I believe now I have until March 31 to hear every possible recommendation from the board as [to] how we can continue transit for our people in Clayton County. I believe we have resources that we can call upon, and I will do everything I can to pull those together. We haven't even scratched the surface ... or considered what it will cost us if we don't continue transit."
Clayton County Commissioner Michael Edmondson, who seconded the motion to terminate C-TRAN, said he would work with commissioners to find other funding sources for the bus service. However, he said he believes the service is too expensive to operate without outside financial assistance.
"My concern with C-TRAN is how the county pays for the service it provides," Edmondson said. "Clayton County does not have sufficient funding from state or federal grants, nor can we use property taxes to fund the shortfall. The question is simply a matter of economics. Where are we going to find $8 [million] or $9 million a year to fund a service without help."
Bell said that over the life of C-TRAN, the county has received millions of dollars from the Federal Transit Administration to assist in the operation of the service. Bell warned that the federal government may come back for the money if the county doesn't follow through with funding C-TRAN.
"It [C-TRAN] might go out of business, but the question is, will we have to pay those federal funds back," Bell said. "We better look before we leap."
In another matter, the board voted Tuesday to accept $221,349 from the U.S. Department of Justice to implement an Adult Felony Drug Court. According to Superior Court Judge Albert Collier, who will preside over the Drug Court, the money will fund a Drug Court coordinator and pay for treatment medicines and drug testing supplies for the next three years.
Collier believes the program will help identify repeat drug offenders and help keep them out of the court system.
"The goal is to [make it so] that [the time] from arrest to entering treatment is three weeks, rather than having them staying in jail for 10 months to a year waiting for trail," he said. "It will help with the offenders, but will also cut back on the cost of people being incarcerated. It will also remove chronic drug users from the drug scene ... and hopefully bring down the demand."
According to county officials, the starting annual salary of the Drug Court coordinator will be $43,359.35. The $221,349 U.S. Department of Justice grant will require a 25 percent match from the county, according to county officials.