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Lawmakers rally support for transit-funding bill

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

On the eve of a crucial deadline for a bill that could provide a long-term funding source for public transportation in Clayton County, State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale), accompanied by past, and current, state lawmakers, rallied supporters of the legislation.

House Bill 1393, which would enable Clayton to levy a penny sales tax for transportation, currently sits in the House Rules Committee awaiting placement on the House voting calendar. It must be voted on by the full House before midnight tonight to have a chance of passing during this year's legislative session.

About 50 supporters of the bill gathered in the gymnasium of Riverdale First United Methodist Church on Thursday evening, in a town hall meeting organized by Abdul-Salaam. The legislator spoke on the forward movement of the bill, and urged supporters to write, call, and appear before key members of the House Rules Committee on Friday.

"We stayed at the Capitol, and at two minutes until 8 p.m., last night ... the cutoff point for getting a bill out this year, we passed the bill through the subcommittee on sales tax and the full Ways and Means committee," Abdul-Salaam said. "We got that bill passed through two committees in 15 minutes, and before we left the parking lot, it was on the rules calendar ... tell me that God ain't able.

"Tomorrow [Friday] is one of those days when all hands are on deck," she continued. "Failure is not an option. Too many people's lives depend on what we do from here. We need to have visible, warm bodies around the Capitol, so that all the legislators can see that, because all of the legislators have to vote."

In October of last year, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 (with BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell opposed) to end the C-TRAN bus service on March 31, due to budgetary constraints. According to county officials, C-TRAN generated $2 million in fare box revenue last year, and cost approximately $10 million to operate.

Abdul-Salaam's bill, introduced in the House last week, would essentially allow Clayton County to break through a long-standing 7 percent sales tax cap for the purpose of funding transit. Through a referendum, the county could then vote to become a paying member of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), which currently operates C-TRAN.

Language in House Bill 1393 is also attached to another bill currently in the House -- House Bill 1218, a bill to enact the Transportation Investment Act of 2010.

Abdul-Salaam said a one-cent tax levy could generate $49 million for public transit. She urged supporters to gather at the Capitol anytime after 12:30 p.m., today, in order to make their presence felt in the House. "A lot of people like to say, 'We didn't hear from you,'" Abdul-Salaam said. "We need to give them human faces."

State Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Ellenwood), former state senator Gail Davenport, as well representatives from the office of U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), joined Abdul-Salaam in support of the legislation on Thursday. Missing were all members of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners, as well as any other members of the Clayton County Legislative Delegation.

Jones, chairman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, said vocal citizens could make the difference in whether the legislation passes. "Sometimes, we have to take on fights that are unpopular," he said. "We can only do so much as elected officials. The only way we are going to keep this service [C-TRAN] running is your support."

Erin Walls, an intern social worker at the Embracing Arms group home in Jonesboro, said Thursday's meeting showed citizens how they could make a difference in Friday's crucial legislative proceedings. "Public transportation has a lot to do with people being able to live on their own ... people who do not have a lot of resources," Walls said. "It's really cutting people off at the knees for there not to be any service. What happened yesterday [Wednesday] in the house was greatly meaningful. This meeting is helpful [in order] to give people hope."

Michael Lett, a Clayton County resident and C-TRAN rider, said he plans to be at the Capitol on Friday afternoon to express his support of public transportation in the county.

"Tomorrow, I will be there at the State Capitol letting them see my face," Lett said. "I'm not just a number on a piece of paper."