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Jeff Turner expresses support for transit at forum

Clayton County Chairman Jeff Turner, left, and Transportation Director Jeff Metarko answer a question about a planned mass transit feasibility study during a transportation forum in Riverdale on Thursday. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

Clayton County Chairman Jeff Turner, left, and Transportation Director Jeff Metarko answer a question about a planned mass transit feasibility study during a transportation forum in Riverdale on Thursday. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

JONESBORO — Clayton County Chairman Jeff Turner left little doubt as to which side he sat on the debate over mass transit’s return Thursday.

Turner and county Transportation Director Jeff Metarko were panelists at a transportation forum in Riverdale. The other panelists came from Clayton State University, the City of Riverdale, the Atlanta Regional Commission, Unity Foundation and the Sierra Club.

The chairman touted the benefits of having a mass transit system, such as providing a way for residents to get to work and attracting new businesses to the county.

“I am totally committed to bringing back transportation,” Turner said.

Residents who attended the forum didn’t hear anything that hasn’t already been said in previous settings. Turner and Metarko said the county is about to conclude a request for proposals process to find a company that will conduct a mass transportation feasibility study.

That study will look at whether the county is best served by starting up its own mass transit system, by joining MARTA or not resurrecting transit at all. The county has been without a mass transportation system since the C-Tran system was shut down by county commissioners in 2010 because of funding issues.

Metarko said the county expects it will take one year to complete the feasibility study.

“The proposal that we’re soliciting right now for a consultant to come on board, we have structured it to be what we call an annual contract,” Metarko said. “We have structured the contract so that we can have a relationship with them for up to four years. By no means do we anticipate the study to take four years.

Turner and Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Winn Dixon said residents should show patience with the process while the county makes sure it follows the most cost effective route for re-instating mass transit. The feasibility study is required by the federal government before it will consider giving the county money to start up a bus system.

“We need a transportation system but we can’t just say we need one just for the sake of having one,” Turner said. “We’ve got to be smart about how we construct this thing. Me personally, I don’t want to construct or have a system that’s going to fold two, to three years down the road. It has to sustain itself.”

Dixon said she is looking into options to have a temporary bus service come in to get residents in Riverdale to and from their workplaces and a MARTA station at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

“If we can work out something feasible with the fees, and figure out a route until we get our own service, then I think that’s going to be wonderful,” Dixon said.

But not all participants showed an interest in waiting. Atlanta Sierra Club Program Assistant Brionte McCorkle said the group has concerns about the feasibility study and urged residents to ask commissioners to put a binding referendum to join MARTA on the November 2014 ballot.

“We believe MARTA is the best option because a big part of bringing transit back is funding and MARTA comes with a 1-percent sales tax and that is going to generate up to $49 million a year for public transit,” said McCorkle. “That is an awesome, awesome sustained funding source. In 2010, Clayton voters supported this and voted overwhelmingly in favor of joining MARTA (in a nonbinding referendum).”

Moderator Charles Walker, from the Partnership for Southern Equity, also asked if the county could put a mass transit system on the proposed 2015 special purpose local option sales tax project list.

“Have all of the projects for that SPLOST been decided?” Walker asked.

“No, we’re still working on that,” Turner replied.

“And, is transportation, the buses, restoring them part of that list?” Walker said.

“No,” said Turner, while eliciting gasps from the audience.

But Turner had already explained his stance on using a SPLOST to fund a mass transit system, and his reason for not putting it on a SPLOST-funded project list, before Walker asked the questions. Seconds earlier, the chairman had said the problem with using that special tax is that would only pay for a transit system for the five-year life of the tax.

“I don’t want to ever tie the transportation system to the SPLOST because it has to be voted on every five years,” Turner said.