By Joel Hall
Members of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, and other state lawmakers, vowed to fight for Clayton County's C-TRAN bus service during a public hearing at the state Capitol on Wednesday.
Members of the House and Senate heard from key constituent groups who would be impacted by the loss of C-TRAN and discussed regional and state funding solutions.
More than 100 people squeezed into Room 230 of the Capitol building, including representatives of Clayton County's cities, business community, and educational institutions. All addressed the caucus with the same message -- that ending C-TRAN would have a devastating impact on area businesses and residents.
In October, all members of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners, with the exception of Chairman Eldrin Bell, voted in favor of ending C-TRAN service as of March 31, due to funding concerns.
During Wednesday's public hearing, Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon said the news has worried citizens and put the city's economic development at risk.
"I had numerous calls from individuals, especially those on dialysis," Wynn-Dixon said. "That is the lifeline that they need in order to sustain their life. When you go up and down [Ga.] Highway 85, you see tons of people at the bus stop with their groceries. Looking at it from an economic perspective ... this creates jobs. They might not all be white-collar jobs, but money is money."
Clayton County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Yulonda Beauford said that while some have expressed that C-TRAN is linked to crime and low property values, those sentiments have not been expressed by the business community. She said the loss of C-TRAN would "affect our businesses tremendously."
"We receive several calls of concern ... calls from our largest employers, such as Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta [International] Airport and our smallest businesses, concerned about the sustainability of their businesses and not having adequate transportation in our community," Beauford said. "We know there needs to be a long-term funding solution ... but a complete loss of C-TRAN will be a devastation on our businesses and the community."
Kay Ingram, director of the Clayton County campus of the ITT Technical Institute, told members of the Legislative Black Caucus that the majority of her school's students use C-TRAN to attend school and that the institute would consider moving if C-TRAN is eliminated. Clayton State University President Tim Hynes said that, in a survey of more than 5,500 students out of its population of 6,700 students, 11.2 percent rely on C-TRAN to attend classes.
Caucus member, state Rep. Billy Mitchell (D-Stone Mountain), said that part of C-TRAN's problem is a lack of state funding. He said that Georgia is the only state in the country that "doesn't have a line item for public transit" in its budget and that it is "going to take an outcry" from citizens to find a funding solution for C-TRAN that is not a "temporary fix."
"Often times, we look at the face of public transportation and we just think that it's just a certain class of consumer, but the fact of the matter is that if we don't do something about public transportation now, 10 years from now when businesses leave, 10 years from now when education opportunities aren't what they ought to be, we will look back at this day and say we should have done something," Mitchell said. "We have to join the rest of the nation and fund public transit."
State Sen. Doug Stoner (D-Smyrna), a former member of the Cobb County transit board, said that Clayton County, like Cobb, is one of the original "MARTA counties," in which the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority was designed to operate. He said that if Clayton County is able to call a referendum to remove its 7 percent sales tax cap, it would be in the power of the General Assembly to pull Clayton into the MARTA service region with a 1-cent sales tax contribution.
"We have it in our ability as a legislature, if so desired, to add to a transportation bill, the ability to call for a referendum in a particular MARTA county," Stoner said. "Currently, it is written as the county commissioners [needing to call for a referendum], but it is not beyond our abilities as legislators to add that [to a bill] and put that out as a referendum for a specific MARTA county. It would be a change in the MARTA Act."
Stoner said the governor may soon introduce legislation to support state funding for public transportation, and that funding for C-TRAN may be added to the bill. However, he said the earliest any referendums pertaining to MARTA or C-TRAN could take place would be in September -- months after C-TRAN is scheduled to shut down.
Bell, who was the only Clayton County commissioner seen at Wednesday's hearing, said he is willing to challenge the board's decision on C-TRAN on a legal basis. He said that on July 18, 2000, the county passed a referendum to create C-TRAN and that he would challenge any attempt to end C-TRAN without another referendum.
"While all these other bus systems are trying to fill their buses ... our buses are overflowing," Bell said. "We should continue and expand the service. We have already voted on this and gave us options to fund it. Money is not the issue ... those on the board refuse to give more -- what you have asked us to do.
"I've talked to lawyers about this. If there is an implication, I will sue my own board to get this done," he added. "Some people say this service brought all of these Section 8 people here. These people have the right to have some place to live. I welcome them here, as long as they behave."
Legislative Black Caucus Chairman state Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur) said that while state funding options remain far off, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners still has the ability to continue C-TRAN. He encouraged members of the community to make a statement to the board during its next regular meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 16.
"This is an issue that affects Georgia," Jones said. "There are some that say the hour is too late. Anything the commission can do, they can undo. We are going to ask them to reconsider their actions."