Photo by Curt Yeomans
State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam (center) asks the Clayton County Board of Commissioners Tuesday to call for a binding referendum to join MARTA. Abdul-Salaam has been a leading proponent of Clayton County joining the regional transportation system since the county lost local bus service two years ago.
JONESBORO — Mass transit advocates want the Clayton County Board of Commissioners to stop putting off a call for a binding referendum for the county to join MARTA.
State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale) and Georgia Sierra Club President Colleen Kiernan asked commissioners to put the issue of a binding referendum to join the regional transportation system on a meeting agenda.
The county has been without mass transit since the commission voted to shut down the C-Tran bus service in 2010. At least 30 transit supporters attended the commission meeting, Tuesday.
Clayton County is one of the five counties allowed to join MARTA under a 1965 state law. However, state law also stipulates only the county commission can call for a binding vote to join MARTA. County voters approved a nonbinding referendum by 67.35 percent in 2010.
If voters approved a binding referendum, they would pay a one penny sales tax on every dollar they spend in the county to cover operational expenses for the service. Abdul-Salaam said as much as $49 million could be generated each year through the sales tax.
“Can we afford to continue to hurt the citizens that we represent?” said Abdul-Salaam. “Since the closure of C-Tran, this entire county has been affected negatively. We’ve lost jobs and as a result we have higher foreclosures. We have students that get to schools and can’t get into educational programs.”
Commissioners gave no public indication as to whether they would call for a binding MARTA referendum. A reporter approached commission Chairman Eldrin Bell after the meeting to ask him about the matter, but he quickly passed the reporter onto someone else before he could be asked any questions.
Bell and other commissioners supported the return of local bus service to Clayton County under a regional transportation sales tax. The tax would have required residents across 10 metro Atlanta counties to pay for the service — which would have only operated in Clayton County. The tax was rejected by voters across the region on July 31.
“We have an opportunity to do something that no other county in this state does,” said Abdul-Salaam. “We have a ‘Plan B’ in place.”
Funding was the main issue why commissioners argued C-Tran had to be shut down two years ago. They claimed at the time that it was operating with an $8 million deficit, but Abdul-Salaam argued that is normal for any public transportation system. She said no publicly-funded mass transit system in America makes money.
“You do it to provide a service, not to make a profit,” she said.
At least one Clayton County resident who attended the commission meeting was opposed to the idea of bringing MARTA to the county. Clayton County Republican Party President Carl Swensson said it should not be the taxpayers’ responsibility to “subsidize” mass transit for other people. He said the county’s population is not big enough to support a mass transit system.
Swensson and Abdul-Salaam argued over the funding issue after the commission meeting ended.
“We end up having to subsidize somebody else’s transportation — that is we, the taxpayers,” said Swensson.
Abdul-Salaam argued the riders would also be paying for the service.
“The people who ride the transit are taxpayers too, so who are we subsidizing?” she said.
Kiernan said there are several “Plan Bs” available in the aftermath of the voters rejection of the transportation sales tax. However, she added, “it’s not going to be another region-wide referendum.” Instead, she said, “there are lots of opportunities to begin to take smaller, incremental steps towards moving forward with a regional transit system.”
Kiernan said bringing MARTA to Clayton County could actually cover two transit formats desired in the county — local bus service and commuter rail. A commuter rail going to at least Lovejoy has been bandied about for several years but momentum has been stop-and-go to even getting the rail line started.
“If Clayton County were to join MARTA, then MARTA could actually begin building the stations and get the commuter rail line up and running because the operating money would finally be there,” said Kiernan. “It [joining MARTA] could be any form of public transportation.”