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Bill would allow Clayton transit tax

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Legislation is being pushed on two fronts, by State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale), which would allow counties that are part of the MARTA Act -- but haven't already implemented a transit tax -- to break a state-imposed sales tax cap, for the purpose of funding transit.

Abdul-Salaam's bill, House Bill 1393, was assigned to a House subcommittee Thursday morning. On the same morning, the language of the legislation was also attached to House Bill 1218, a bill to enact the Transportation Investment Act of 2010, a sweeping plan to provide funding for the improvement of the state's transportation infrastructure.

If successful, Abdul-Salaam's proposal would enable Clayton, Cobb and Gwinnett counties to levy up to an additional 2 percent in sales tax for the purpose of funding public transportation. As Clayton County's C-TRAN bus service faces closure on March 31, the measure could open a window for Clayton commissioners to put to voters the question of whether to join MARTA as a paying county, by levying, according to Abdul-Salaam's proposal, a 1 percent sales tax.

"It's simply a measure that will allow our county government to raise our sales tax by one penny, so that we can have public transit in Clayton County," Abdul-Salaam said Thursday. "The reason we have to introduce this bill is because Clayton County is at its max, so in order to do that [raise the sales tax by one penny], we have to raise the limit and this bill would do that."

Abdul-Salaam said 7 percent in sales tax is currently levied in Clayton. By raising the sales tax in Clayton to 8 percent, she said the county would be able to generate an additional $49 million for any means of public transportation, whether it be bus or rail.

According to Abdul-Salaam, the measure would provide county commissioners with a long-awaited funding source for a public bus service in Clayton -- a key point of contention in the Board of Commissioners' October decision to end C-TRAN. While a referendum would have to be passed in order to raise the additional tax revenues, Abdul-Salaam hopes the bill will encourage commissioners to reconsider their decision.

"There are still funds to continue C-TRAN," Abdul-Salaam said. "We're hoping the commissioners will see the effort and the ability to raise $49 million a year for public transit and, with that confidence, they will then rescind their vote in October to end C-TRAN."

Clayton County Commission Vice Chairman Wole Ralph, a vocal proponent of shutting down C-TRAN for financial reasons, said the county has long tried to leverage additional sales taxes to fund the bus service, but has been thwarted in its efforts by the sales tax cap. Ralph said Abdul-Salaam's measure looks promising, but that he is not ready to change his mind about C-TRAN.

"I think the state needs to give us some tools for transportation funding and I am glad that they are considering this in a really serious way," Ralph said. "It seems like it [Abdul-Salaam's proposal] could give some options for the county to have transit without bankrupting the general fund. We'll be getting 19 million less in the 2011 budget than in the 2010 budget. That is our first priority right now."

If the measure passes, according to Abdul-Salaam, the earliest the county could hold a referendum on paying into the MARTA system would be during the November general election. She said she is confident that both HB 1393 and HB 1218 will pass to the Senate prior to the March 25 Crossover Day -- the day by which most legislation must make it from one chamber of the legislature to the other to have a chance of getting to the governor's desk.

"I think if we weren't in the crisis we are in, we wouldn't be looking at this right now," Abdul-Salaam said. "There is definitely support in the General Assembly, both in the House and Senate, for this. We have two good possibilities. Citizens, if nothing else, should feel hopeful."

Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell believes the bill may give Clayton funding options not only for a bus service, but commuter rail as well. He hopes the prospect can sway the board to reconsider shutting down C-TRAN.

"We are supportive of any help that the government can give us that can help us maintain and advance our transit options in the county, and that is to include local transit and commuter rail and any other transit options in the future that the county may need," Bell said. "I'm hopeful that the board, after weighing all of these options, will make a responsible decision."