By Joel Hall
Hundreds of residents packed the Clayton County Administration Building Tuesday to hear Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) General Manager and CEO Beverly Scott discuss financial concerns surrounding C-TRAN, the county's bus service operated by MARTA.
But the public quickly turned on commissioners after the board voted to cut short Scott's scheduled presentation on the service's budget shortfalls.
Concerned citizens and C-TRAN riders, many arriving on buses provided by the local chapter of the Amalgamated Transit Union, crowded the Clayton County Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday, forcing nearly 100 people to wait outside the board room. More than 70 people signed up to publicly express their C-TRAN concerns.
Commissioners worked to counter claims that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the end of C-TRAN service.
"Some people have tried to frame tonight's meeting as the elimination of C-TRAN's services," Commissioner Wole Ralph said prior to any discussion on the bus service. "That is not what we're here today to discuss in any way, shape or form. What we have heard from MARTA is that the revenue estimates provided by the county are flawed, thus we have to make additional adjustments to balance the budget ... Simply put, we can ask for more money from the taxpayers, cut services or raise fares."
In a work session prior to Tuesday's regularly scheduled meeting, Scott told commissioners that what the county is currently budgeting to operate C-TRAN is not enough to support the service's five routes, 24 buses, six para-transit vans, and 92 employees. In response, the board voted unanimously during the meeting to begin the federally-mandated public hearing process required to propose any dramatic changes to C-TRAN. The board set the date of the first public hearing on C-TRAN as Oct. 7 at 7 p.m.
Prior to Scott's presentation about C-TRAN's finances during the regular board meeting, Commissioner Michael Edmondson suggested canceling her presentation.
"Dr. Scott, having already presented the bulk of her presentation to us in the pre-meeting, and us already having voted unanimously in favor of her proposed public hearings, I don't know that it is necessary for us to hear another version of this," Edmondson said. After the suggestion, members of the audience vocalized their opposition, and one member of the audience shouted, "we need to hear this!"
Scott proceeded to present her findings to the board, suggesting the board come up with a "Marshall Plan" to address a $1.3 million budget shortfall for C-TRAN.
"The longer we delay this, the deeper the cuts have to be, the deeper the fare increases have to be," Scott said. During her presentation, Scott suggested the board apply for federal funding to help address certain service issues, such as "severe overcrowding" on the majority of C-TRAN's routes.
About 15 minutes into Scott's presentation, however, Ralph made a motion to abruptly end the presentation.
"This conversation was not part of what we discussed," he said. "What we talked about was very specific issues ... not about extending service or how to deal with these other issues that we don't have the dollars in the county budget to deal with. To come here and to talk about them like we have an option misleads the public in a real way."
Ralph motion's to end Scott's presentation was seconded by Commissioner Gail Hambrick and passed 4-1 by the board, with Chairman Eldrin Bell opposed.
The decision to end Scott's presentation on C-TRAN elicited anger and boos from the crowd. Some audience members shouted, "Recall! Recall!"
Bell called for order several times during the meeting, at one point threatening to clear the board room.
"Please, we must have order," Bell said. "I will have to ask that some people leave."
In irregular fashion, the board entered into executive session to discuss litigation prior to the time set for public comment. Many C-TRAN employees and riders waited out the executive session to voice their worry and anger about the fate of the bus service.
"We are not talking about low lifes and interlopers here [riding C-TRAN buses]," said Elliot Michaels, a C-TRAN rider. "We are talking about good, solid, working-class American stock. We're talking about people who are trying to do better for themselves and their families, and do so in an honorable way. If there are cutbacks in public transportation, it will be difficult for all of us working-class people to do just that."
"It's not a commodity, it's a necessity," Jonesboro resident, Avery Floyd, Jr., said of C-TRAN service. "For this to be an issue, it makes me wonder where the hearts are."
"You all have degrees and cars," said Nichelle Phillips, a C-TRAN bus driver. "We still have to work and make the county run. Don't forget about the little people."
Scott said during her presentation that C-TRAN "is a much needed service" and "one of the most utilized bus services" in the region. She said it is "unfortunate" that the county has waited this long to take action on C-TRAN budget shortfalls.
"It's unfortunate that everything had to get to this fever pitch," Scott said after her presentation. "We have been trying to get the attention of the full Clayton County Commission since about March. We've been trying to get clarity from the staff since January. They adopted a budget that has flaws in it and never shared any of that with MARTA before they adopted it.
"This is not the first time we have been scheduled to speak in Clayton County and have not been able to complete that," she added. "We are very proud to operate C-TRAN, but there is a problem in that there are insufficient funds to provide the service that we are contracted to provide ... At the end of the day, they are the elected officials and they have to make prudent decisions."