By Joel Hall
Legislation was approved by the Georgia General Assembly this week that may give Clayton residents stranded by the recent closure of C-TRAN, a chance to have public transit options funded by a one-cent sales tax.
On Thursday, on the final day of the 2010 legislative session, the House adopted House Bill 1393, a bill that will allow the county to break through its 7-percent sales tax cap in order to fund public transit. The bill, which was amended in the Senate, also adopts a two-year extension of the state's current motor fuel tax exemption for public transit.
House Bill 1446, a companion bill, that would allow the county to put forth a non-binding referendum asking citizens if they wish to become paying members of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), was adopted by the Senate on Tuesday.
Both bills will now go to the governor's office for approval. State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale), who authored both bills, said they provide hope for the former riders of Clayton County's C-TRAN bus service, which was dismantled by the county on March 31 due to budget concerns.
"I think that it gives us the opportunity to correct a serious need that we have," Abdul-Salaam said. "It gives us the opportunity again to provide quality, affordable, public transportation. It is a quality-of-life issue that doesn't just affect Clayton County. I'm happy that we were able to get the bipartisan support. It's in the hands of the county now to take the step and do the right thing."
According to Clayton County Staff Attorney Michael Smith, the language of House Bill 1393 says that, in order to utilize an extra penny sales tax for public transportation, the county would have to do so "after Jan. 1 2011, but before Nov. 1, 2012." However, he said it is unclear at this time whether the move could be made by a unilateral decision of the board, or if it would have to go to the voters in a referendum.
"In summaries that I've read, it authorizes the county to hold a referendum to support a [one] cent sales tax for MARTA," Smith said. However, "I have to finish reading to see what our obligations are. By next week, we should have time to digest these and know where we are going."
Smith said House Bill 1446 "calls the superintendent of elections to put forth a referendum." Therefore, a non-binding referendum, asking if citizens would like to actively participate in MARTA, could appear on the July 20 primary ballot, or the Nov. 2 general election ballot, he said.
While Clayton County is one of the five original counties included in the MARTA Act of 1965, it currently does not pay into the system.
Clayton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell, who was the only commissioner on the board to vote against ending C-TRAN, said he would like to see a referendum on public-transit funding put forth as soon as possible. He said if the bills are signed into law by the governor, it would allow Clayton to develop sustainable and expanded public transit options.
"For all the people who are expecting transit, it may not come when we want it, but I believe by the good Lord, it will come on time," Bell said. "It will mean that we will have a more sustainable system in place, and I hope to expand it beyond where it is now and put a system in place that will support our citizens going back and forth to work, and particularly, the people close to my heart, the seniors and paratransit riders. I would like to look at some cross-county routes to improve the services we have."
Bell said he would urge the board to use the law, if approved by the governor, to re-institute some form of public bus service for Clayton residents. Commissioner Michael Edmondson, who was one of four commissioners to vote to shutter C-TRAN, said he would not have an opinion on reinstituting a bus service until hearing from voters in a referendum.
"If it gets signed by the governor, it provides a funding source for various types of public transit in the metro area, including C-TRAN, MARTA and commuter rail," Edmondson said. "However, I have no opinion on the matter until the voters vote on it in July. Should the voters of Clayton County support the non-binding referendum, I am willing to have a discussion about raising the sales tax and how it might be spent."
Commissioner Sonna Singleton said she would not comment on the bills until she has time to thoroughly read them. Commissioners Wole Ralph and Gail Hambrick could not be reached for comment on Friday.