Clayton County offers too little — too late

MARTA rejects Clayton County’s proposed half-penny contract

ATLANTA — The MARTA Board doesn’t want Clayton County’s half penny.

The board voted unanimously Wednesday morning to reject the contract county commissioners approved Tuesday night — one that would allow two Clayton County representatives on MARTA’s board for 50 years and bring a bus system to the county for only a half penny. The contract would also ensure that the half penny tax stayed in Clayton County.

“Frankly, I’m not even sure it’s a legal proposal,” said MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe. “It’s not the best opportunity we have to bring world-class transit to Clayton County.”

Atlanta, Dekalb County and Fulton County have paid a full penny to sit on MARTA’s board for the last 35 years. The board saw no reason to make an exception for Clayton County.

“This notion of paying a half penny when everybody else pays a penny — I would not be representing my constituents well,” said MARTA Board Secretary Roderick E. Edmond.

This decision comes just a week after MARTA CEO Keith T. Parker wrote a letter to Commissioner Michael Edmondson suggesting the company would be receptive to taking only a half penny in tax revenue from Clayton County given Norfolk Southern’s reservations about sharing its rail.

In the county’s feasibility study and discussions with MARTA, preliminary figures showed it could be cheaper, more time efficient and feasible for a commuter rail to share a track with Norfolk Southern’s trains. But the commercial transportation provider seemed taken aback by these estimates. Before the county’s commissioners voted Monday night, County Clerk Shelby Haywood read a letter from Norfolk’s General Director of Passenger Policy John V. Edwards to Rich Krisak, the chief operating officer of MARTA.

The tone wasn’t optimistic.

“First, Norfolk Southern has had no discussion nor performed any analysis as to whether and under what conditions it would permit commuter service to be introduced on the S line or the associated right-of-way,” Edwards wrote.

He went on to write that even if the company did perform an analysis, the commissioners probably won’t be prepared for how much sharing a rail would cost.

“We have discovered over time that inevitably public entities dramatically underestimate the costs associated with the introduction of commuter service,” Edwards wrote.

Parker’s letter to Edmondson addressed MARTA’s commitment to providing transportation to Clayton County with or without Norfolk Southern. He wrote that MARTA “understands the concern regarding the commitment to a one-cent tax for a project that will require further study.”

“In light of this issue, the [MARTA] has developed a service plan that continues its commitment to provide an extensive bus system to Clayton County but will require the levy of only a one half cent tax,” Parker wrote.

But after Wednesday’s MARTA meeting, that no longer appears to be the case.

Ashe and the rest of the MARTA board agreed that Clayton County deserved special consideration because of the extensive amount of time it might take to find a rapid transit option — but a half penny just wouldn’t cut it.

Instead, the board voted to extend a full-penny sales tax contract to Clayton County — with some built-in benefits. The board would offer to use half the county’s penny toward establishing a bus system in the near future. The other half would be put into an escrow account — meaning it would be set aside for future use while the county decided how best to bring a commuter rail or other rapid transit system into the county.

Now it’s the Clayton County commissioners’ move again.

The group of five must decide whether to accept MARTA’s offer of a 1-penny tax or to let the referendum fall off the November ballot completely. If the referendum doesn’t make it on the ballot, it’s likely Clayton County may not see an opportunity like this one again, since the Georgia General Assembly would have to reopen a window in which the county could levy a tax for transportation.

The assembly has already opened this window for Clayton County twice.

Commissioners Edmondson, Sonna Singleton Gregory and Gail Hambrick voted for the half-penny sales tax at Tuesday night’s meeting. Only Chairman Jeff Turner and Commissioner Shana Rooks stood in favor of the full penny tax.

Clayton County officials said the commissioners may call a special called meeting for Saturday morning, but nothing official has been called as of Wednesday at noon.

It’s just one more nerve-racking step in the process for supporters of transit in Clayton County – but former state Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam said she doesn’t blame the MARTA board for the frustration she felt Wednesday morning.

“I’m not upset,” she said. “I was upset last night. I said last night, we don’t want half of anything. I don’t want half of your sandwich. I don’t want half of anything.”

She said she felt confident the commissioners could still turn the situation around.

“If you listen to the will of the people, then it’s a no-brainer,” she said. “I think it can happen realistically. Realistically, there’s still time. Realistically, there’s support of the constituents.”

An agreement must be reached between MARTA and Clayton County by July 6 — the day the window the General Assembly opened will close.