Photo by Heather Middleton
By Curt Yeomans
The Clayton County Board of Commissioners put a major emphasis on mass transit projects as part of its recently approved $1.1 billion wish list for an upcoming regional transportation sales tax referendum.
The list includes $347 million in transit requests, such as proposals to establish local bus-and commuter-rail services in the county. The transit requests also include money to build a regional mobility management center in Clayton County. The county commission approved the wish list during a called meeting on Monday.
The inclusion of mass transit projects on the list, however, marks a major turnaround for the county, which saw its C-TRAN bus service roll to a stop a year ago this week, after the majority of county commissioners decided to shut it down, because of financial issues.
"Transit is our highest priority," said Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell. "I am pleased that the commission supported the bus service [being on the wish list], because I think that is where our greatest need is right now."
Projects on the list will be considered for possible inclusion in a regional transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) that will be voted on by voters during a referendum next year. The referendum is part of the state's Transportation Investment Act of 2010.
The law broke the state into 12 transportation regions. Each region will hold its own transportation referendum next year. Passage will mean the creation of a regional one-cent sales tax, to pay for transportation projects. Since it is a regional tax, the majority of voters in the entire region will have to approve the tax, according to a state web site designed to explain the act.
Clayton County is in the same region as the City of Atlanta, and Cherokee, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale counties, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission's web site. The regional commission is overseeing the Atlanta regional SPLOST, according to Bell.
Clayton County's addition of mass transit to its wish list is another twist in a long-running drama involving transit in the county. The concept of a commuter-rail line that would connect Clayton County with Atlanta, and likely the state capital's northern suburbs, has long been sought by several parties in the metro area, but it has also remained elusive.
Then, in late 2009, the majority of members on the Clayton County Board of Commissioners voted to shut down the county's C-TRAN bus service amid concerns that it cost more to operate the service than it was generating in revenues. Thursday will mark one year since C-TRAN's buses ran their last routes.
But, Clayton County Commission Vice Chairman Wole Ralph said things are different now, because the transit systems included on the commission's wish list would be funded regionally. He said a lack of funding sources was a problem with establishing commuter rail in the county, in the past.
He added that a regional transportation SPLOST gives the county a way to establish these services without the burden of funding them falling on property owners in any single county.
"Our view has always been that transit is not a service that should be funded by local governments," Ralph said. "It should be funded statewide, or on a regional basis, so our support of these projects is consistent with the resolutions we've passed in the past."
Bell said the $183 million included for the local bus service alone was expected to be enough to run the service for several years.
Transit is not the only big ticket item on the county's transportation wish list, though. The list includes a $248 million request to turn Tara Boulevard into a "Super Arterial" roadway, with bridges built at intersections to keep traffic moving on the road.
"There are 110,000 cars causing congestion on Tara Boulevard every day, and the traffic seems to be heaviest between [Georgia Hwy. 54] and [Interstate 75], and so we need, not ordinary solutions like widening the road," Bell said. He later added, "It's a matter of safety. It's a matter of giving us relief from traffic, and giving commuters greater access to the freeway."
But, while transit and a Tara Boulevard makeover make up the biggest projects on the list, they are not the only requests that are eye-catching. The list also includes a request for $9 million to build a "Jonesboro Connector" road. Jonesboro Mayor Luther Maddox said the new road would connect Georgia Hwy. 54, on the western side of Jonesboro, with Lake Jodeco Road, on the city's eastern side.
"This connector goes straight from Fayetteville, to the eastern side of the county," Maddox said.
Maddox said it would be similar to the Georgia Hwy. 138 spur road that takes some of the traffic on that road around the northern side of Jonesboro, instead of through the heart of the city. He said the road has not been drawn, yet, so it is not clear how much of it will go through residential areas in the city. But he said it would likely require the construction of an underpass at the railroad line in Jonesboro.
The Jonesboro mayor said the biggest advantage of building a connector on the south side of his city is that it would have the potential to reduce traffic in the city's downtown area. "It takes some of the traffic off Tara boulevard, and it should remove that bottleneck at College Street [in downtown Jonesboro]," he said.
Maddox said construction of the connector, however, is likely "20 to 30" years away, despite being on the transportation SPLOST wish list.
Bell and county spokesperson Jamie Carlington said Jeff Metarko, the county's transportation and development director, was expected to hand-deliver the county's wish list to officials at the Georgia Department of Transportation, either late Tuesday, or on Wednesday. Bell said Wednesday was the deadline to submit the list to the Department of Transportation.
The Georgia Department of Transportation, the commission chairman said, will compile a prioritized, region-wide list of every project the communities in the region submitted. That list will, in turn, be sent to a roundtable, convened by the Atlanta Regional Commission, that will pick projects to put on the SPLOST referendum ballot, according to Bell.
Clayton County's full wish list includes:
* Turning Tara Boulevard into a "Super Arterial" road, from Interstate 75, to Georgia Hwy. 54 ($248 million).
* Establishing local bus service ($183 million).
* Establishing a commuter-rail line ($157 million).
* Widening McDonough Road, from Georgia Hwy. 54, to Tara Boulevard ($71 million).
* Widening Georgia Hwy. 42, from Anvil Block Road, to Lake Harbin Road ($54 million).
* Realigning Conley Road, at the Interstate 285 interchange, to connect with Aviation Boulevard ($52 million).
* Grade separation on Tara Boulevard, at Upper Riverdale road ($43 million).
* Widening Georgia Hwy. 54, from McDonough Road, to Tara Boulevard ($41 million).
* Widening Tara Boulevard, from Georgia Hwy. 54, to Georgia Hwy. 81 ($37 million).
* Widening Georgia Hwy. 85, from Adams Drive, to Interstate 75 ($34 million).
* Widening Conley Road, from Interstate 285, to Georgia Hwy. 54 ($29 million).
* Grade separation on Tara Boulevard, at Georgia Hwy. 138 ($29 million).
* Widening Georgia Hwy. 85, from Roberts Drive, to Georgia Hwy. 279 ($27 million).
* Widening Mt. Zion Boulevard, from Southlake Parkway, to Somerton Drive ($20 million).
* Widening Battle Creek Road, from Valley Hill Road, to Southlake Parkway ($16 million).
* Putting in a sidewalk on Tara Boulevard, from Upper Riverdale Road, to the Harold R. Banke Justice Center ($11 million).
* Building a "Jonesboro Connector" road ($9 million).
* Building a regional mobility management center ($7 million).
* Repairing/replacing the Flint River bridge on McDonough Road ($5 million).
* Repairing/replacing the Flint River bridge on Valley Hill Road ($4 million).