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Clayton County officials tout transit’s benefits at Democratic Party forum

State Rep. Mike Glanton calls for residents to support a binding referendum to opt into MARTA during a public forum hosted by the Clayton County Democratic Party Thursday. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

State Rep. Mike Glanton calls for residents to support a binding referendum to opt into MARTA during a public forum hosted by the Clayton County Democratic Party Thursday. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

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Clayton County commissioner Michael Edmondson, center, listens to speakers at a transit forum hosted by the county’s Democratic party Thursday. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

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Former state Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam listens to speakers during a transit forum at Morrow City Hall Thursday. Abdul-Salaam has been a proponent of bringing transit back to the county for years. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

MORROW —A return of mass transit in Clayton County would be the community’s “gateway to opportunity” and a tool to spur economic development, state Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Jonesboro) told residents this week.

Glanton told a bipartisan audience that the county needs transit during a forum hosted by the Clayton County Democratic Party at Morrow City Hall Thursday. The legislator authored legislation that allows the county to hold a referendum on levying up to one percent sales tax to opt in to participate in MARTA.

“There are folks out there saying ‘We don’t need public transportation in Clayton County, we can’t afford it,’” said Glanton. “I think the most appropriate answer would be ‘Can we afford not to? Can we afford not to?’

“I want you to be prepared to go out and help us make this argument because if we value the people in this community, if we value businesses coming to this community, then we need to do this thing,” he added.

Proponents of joining MARTA pointed out Thursday that Clayton County has always been a part of the transit system since it was chartered in the 1960s and is listed in the authority’s charter. However, voters in the county, along with voters in Cobb and Gwinnett counties voted to opt out of levying a MARTA sales tax, and therefore opt of participating in the service.

However, MARTA did manage Clayton County’s previous transit system, C-Tran, before commissioners voted to disband that service in 2010.

One of the arguments being made now for transit’s return is the impact it can have on economic development and the county’s ability to attract new businesses. But Glanton pointed out there are impacts on the education and health communities as well, particularly for Clayton State University and Southern Regional Medical Center.

“What if we don’t [bring back transit]?” Glanton asked. “Well, you won’t see Clayton State University expand with its students, no matter how much money you put into a science building. We were able to get, as a delegation, $20 million to build a new science building, so you have to ask yourself this question: how will they get there?

“Southern Regional?” he added. “How are we going to get people to the hospital?”

Atlanta Sierra Club program assistant Brionte McCorkle said her organization was “so glad” to see Glanton’s legislation pass in the General Assembly. She told audience members they needed to “stay on top” of the commissioners to get them to hold a referendum. A similar, non-binding referendum in 2010 showed overwhelming support for joining MARTA.

“Let them know that we want this MARTA vote to happen, and that we can’t keep waiting for public transit,” McCorkle said. “You want to keep on them so they keep on track and don’t miss this opportunity.”

Although county commissioners voted to end C-Tran, some members of the board have begun to come out in support of its return. Last month, Chairman Jeff Turner openly endorsed transit during his State of the County address. Thursday, Commissioner Michael Edmondson also expressed his support for a bus system as well — with conditions.

Edmondson said the county would ideally levy a tax of one-quarter of a percent, but that the MARTA charter allows the lowest tax to be one-half of a percent. He said a full one-percent tax is not likely.

“We’re looking at half-a-penny or less,” said Edmondson. “Why? Because who wants to buy a car [in Clayton County] when it’s an eight-percent sales tax when you can go to Fayette County and buy one at six-percent?”

The county is in negotiations with MARTA officials to craft language for the referendum that would allow the county to reduce the tax shoppers would pay without having to hold another referendum, Edmondson said.

“The Board of Commissioners has already met with Keith Parker and all of the other executives at MARTA and their attorneys and our attorneys are already working together to draw up an intergovernmental agreement with MARTA,” Edmondson said.

Commissioners will also pursue legislation next year to let them reduce their MARTA sales tax — if it passes — to one-quarter of a percent, he said.