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Clayton residents call for transit at forum

There was the occasional critique of the idea of creating a special tax to fund transportation projects Thursday, at an Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) forum in Jonesboro, but the majority of residents who spoke at the meeting used the opportunity to demand mass transit.

And, by mass transit, they explained in their comments, they want both local bus service AND a commuter rail system.

"This area desperately needs a mass transportation system, a multi-modal system, that will enable people to get around," said Rex resident, Larry O'Keefe, during a public comment section of the forum. "We need it in the entire region. Not just the northside. We are getting shortchanged."

Mass transit is a sensitive topic in Clayton County. The county's previous bus service, C-Tran, was shut down last year in a controversial move by county commissioners because of funding issues. There has also been a battle going on for years to get funding for an Atlanta-to-Griffin commuter rail line, which would pass through the heart of Clayton County, and could eventually go to Macon, and beyond.

Clayton officials asked to have local bus service, and the commuter rail line put on a list of projects to be funded by a one-percent transportation tax vote next year. The bus service is — so far — still on the list, but an ARC roundtable executive committee, tasked with creating a final list, removed commuter rail from the list over the summer, much to the chagrin of Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell. The chairman is seeking an amendment to the list, to get commuter rail restored, at a cost of $350 million.

Several residents, as well as State Sen. Gail Davenport (D-Jonesboro) and Georgians For Passenger Rail Chief Executive Officer Gordon Kenna, called for the rail line's return.

"Passenger rail needs to be brought back," said Jonesboro resident, Bob Reynolds. He explained that in his travels to Europe, he has noticed countries on that continent have a strong commitment to passenger rail. "I've visited France, and Italy and Greece three different times, and there's rail service there, even to the smallest villages," Reynolds said. "You can live in Europe without even needing a car."

Richard Davies, of Morrow, said he was "very disappointed in the lack of vision that the roundtable has shown." He explained –– to the thunderous applause of many of the approximately 160 residents who attended the forum –– that Clayton County residents need a mass transit system that can connect them to all points of the metropolitan Atlanta area.

"We need to be able to get from here, to the airport, on a seamless public transit system," Davies said. "We need to be able to get from here, to the Emory Medical Center on a seamless public transit system. We need to be able to get from here, to Norcross on a seamless public transit system."

Bell, who is also a member of the ARC's regional roundtable, said he has been "negotiating" with other roundtable members to try and get the commuter rail line on the transportation project list. He said he needs only $40 million to do the studies to get it "shovel ready," in case funding needs to come from another source, to build the line. But he added he is trying to get all $350 million for the project.

"There are some commitments being made to me, of some significant funds, but at this juncture, I'm not sure what the price is going to be that I'll have to pay for it," he said.

The county commission chairman said he will likely ask that some (possibly $20 million) of the $130 million set aside on the list, to turn Tara Boulevard into a "Super Arterial" highway, be re-directed to the Atlanta-to-Griffin rail line. Bell said he will not have any of the $100 million set aside for bus service in the county redirected to commuter rail, however. "I would rather have both," he said. "Both are equal priorities to me."

Davenport said she is supporting the commuter rail line because she believes the county needs a multi-modal transportation system that can easily move people around the community, and spur economic development. "I think that we need to be able to get people to, and fro," the senator said. "We have one of the busiest airports in the world, and we need to be able to get people to, and from [the airport]. So, when you get a commuter rail, and you get mass transit, you'll be able to create jobs, and when people have jobs, they can contribute to the community. They'll be able to stop some of these high foreclosures that we have today."

Former C-Tran bus operator Gareth Frank said a bus system needs to be part of a mass transit plan, to help deal with traffic that he said will inevitably come with the opening of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport's Maynard H. Jackson, Jr. International Terminal, on Interstate 75, next year.

"With the millions of dollars you all have coming toward this county, especially with the opening of the new concourse at the airport, you will need that service out there," Frank said.

Clayton County Economic Development Director Grant Wainscott said, after the forum ended, that Clayton County will need a diverse, multi-modal transportation system — which works together — in order to attract new businesses. When he tries to attract a major corporation to re-locate to the county, he said, he has to compete with cities, such as London, which have more extensive mass transit systems.

"A comprehensive mass transit plan is an incredibly important economic development instrument," Wainscott said. "I think it's important that we have multiple access points, and multiple types of transit. A bus system alone will not change the county's economy drastically. Commuter rail, alone, will not dramatically alter the county's economic future.

"A combination of those, and the connections with the regional transportation is where the power comes in," he added.

But, not every person who spoke at the meeting was in favor of mass transit. Jonesboro resident, Sonja Sleeper, offered up one of the few voices that advocated roads over mass transit. She questioned how much economic development could come from bringing mass transit, of any type, back to Clayton County.

"To me, everything seems to be designed to move people through the county very rapidly," she said. "What kind of industry does this bring to the county? What kind of jobs does it bring? I would say we should concentrate more on projects for road repair and improvements."