Moderated by Tom Sabulis
It could be an historic decision for regional transportation efforts. Clayton County commissioners have voted to allow a referendum on November’s ballot that will let residents decide if they want to raise the sales tax to join MARTA. Today, we discuss the citizens’ right to vote on the measure, while an opponent of the MARTA agreement details his problems with the contract. A Norfolk Southern executive also responds to a previous study on running passenger rail to Clayton, and about the challenge of running MARTA trains on the railroad’s tracks or right-of-way.
Commenting is open.
Clayton lets voters speak
By Tom Sabulis
In the end, it wasn’t about bus or rail, a half-penny tax or a full-penny tax, contracts and amendments, escrow and quorums. It was about letting the people vote. It was about giving taxpayers the power to cast their ballot on an issue of vital and desperate interest to them: transportation.
We’ve heard plenty recently about big public investments in projects in metro Atlanta where citizens dearly wish they had had their say; the Braves stadium in Cobb County and the Falcons stadium in Atlanta are the most prominent. The public didn’t have a vote in either case. And it took years for Georgia residents to finally get an opportunity to say whether they should be allowed to buy alcohol on Sundays.
It comes down to this: On major issues where large swaths of tax money are concerned, the people claim a right to be heard: Not just at public meetings, but at the voting booth.
Ultimately, that’s what convinced Clayton County Commissioner Sonna Singleton to join two other commissioners Saturday morning to approve a full penny sales tax question for the November ballot that would allow the county to become a full-fledged partner in MARTA. It’s almost a given that the referendum will pass. Residents will get bus service in the short run, as early as March 1, and rail or some other “high capacity transit option” — perhaps Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) — down the road. But it’s rail they’re really counting on.
Clayton is the only core metro Atlanta county without public transit, a fact that drove many citizens — an overwhelming pro-transit majority — to pack two commission meetings last week to urge commissioners to approve the ballot referendum to bring in MARTA. Addressing the July 1 meeting, Roberta Abdul-Salaam, a transit advocate and former state senator, apologized in advance to commissioners for becoming emotional. “I get emotional when I see little old women walking down Tara Boulevard in a ditch in the rain.”
Transit supporters didn’t much like the half-penny option approved that night by a 3-2 commission vote. The half-penny tax increase, which would have raised an estimated $25 million annually, would have ensured only bus service in Clayton. It was rejected unanimously by the MARTA board the next day; residents of Fulton and DeKalb counties and the city of Atlanta pay a full penny sales tax for MARTA.
It was a risky move for MARTA, to see if Clayton would reconsider with its back to the wall. And when Clayton Commission Chairman Jeff Turner called for a special meeting Saturday to vote on joining MARTA with a full penny (or getting no transit at all), residents were cautiously optimistic but steeled for disappointment.
Ultimately, supporters got what they wished for. And in the rapturous, tear-flowing hallelujah following the decision, Turner told me he expected the measure would pass with 75 to 80 percent of the vote in November.
But residents should neither celebrate too long nor divert their attention.
As Commissioner Michael Edmondson, the lone dissenting vote, took time to point out during Saturday’s meeting, the contract agreement with MARTA raises legitimate questions. For starters, it doesn’t guarantee rail, nor does it give Clayton the ability to renegotiate what kind of transit system it ultimately gets beyond bus service. That will be MARTA’s call. Also, money collected in an escrow account designated for Clayton rail could also be sent to MARTA bondholders if the transit agency ever went bankrupt.
MARTA CEO and General Manager Keith Parker said if the rail effort fails, Clayton will get an “excellent” alternative, perhaps some form of BRT.
Commissioners declined Edmondson’s suggestion to amend the contract, fearing their time would run out. State legislators put a July 6 deadline on calling the referendum.
Still, Edmondson’s reservations resonated with Singleton.
“I still have a lot of concerns about the contract,” she said, but it’s up to voters now. “I’m going to go ahead and let them make that decision. I encourage them to be just as involved now as this contract goes forward.”
To be sure, putting the full penny referendum on the ballot was the right thing to do. But Clayton County will serve itself well to pay attention to the fine print in the months ahead.
No rail guarantee should be dealbreaker
By Michael Edmondson
I hope I am wrong, but I believe Clayton County gave away the farm. The voters should ultimately make the decision, but state law provides that the Board of Commissioners put forth what is considered by the voters. The board chose to allow our voters to enter into a contract with MARTA that provides for buses and not rail. It offers the potential for rail, but at a severe cost. Should voters approve the referendum to join MARTA under the recently accepted contract, Clayton will pay an estimated $50 million annually to MARTA in exchange for $22 million in bus service and only the potential of future rail.
MARTA does not have the ability to extend rail into Clayton. I wish it could. I would be happy to pay the penny for it. But the transit agency does not have a rail system on this side of town, nor a right of way upon which to build. Norfolk Southern does, but the railroad isn’t interested at this time. I like (MARTA General Manager) Keith Parker’s written suggestion that Clayton and MARTA conduct a joint feasibility study. I think we should include Norfolk Southern, too. When there is a viable plan, we should bring it to the voters.
MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe said Wednesday, “We will promise you … that Clayton’s money will not be used for system expansion somewhere else.”
Great! Then, why ask that we collect it? And why ask that we give it to MARTA to hold? There are provisions in the contract that specifically say our funds can be used elsewhere.
The contract approved by MARTA and Clayton offers “a rapid transit system, including the use of buses as well as a potential rail system.” Page 5 tells us, “Should the Clayton Extension as envisioned not prove feasible, the Authority will develop further plans for an alternative.” On Page 7: “The Authority is hereby authorized to use said monies, to the maximum extent permitted by law, in any manner it deems necessary or desirable … to finance the costs of the Clayton Extension and the costs of other Authority projects.” Page 8 really socks it to taxpayers: “Clayton will not exercise any right of set-off … nor will it withhold any such payment because of any claimed breach of this contract by the Authority.”
Clayton’s own feasibility studies report that its citizens want bus and rail. The contract does not provide for such services. It offers only the potential for a rail system that, if not feasible as determined by MARTA, can be abandoned and replaced at the discretion of MARTA. Consistent with the MARTA Act, the contract provides no mechanism by which Clayton can authorize, approve or even negotiate future operations, services or even routes provided by MARTA inside or outside our borders, including whether or not rail ever comes to Clayton.
Why would Clayton put itself in that position?
The MARTA Clayton Extension Report estimates $19 million to $22 million annual operating costs through the next decade for a “very robust bus service throughout Clayton County.” A half-penny sales tax is more than enough for that.
“At the present time, we need to have those counties who are going to participate in our system to help maintain and improve our infrastructure of the rail,” MARTA board member Harold Buckley Sr. said Wednesday. “In this particular instance, Clayton County is not taking that into consideration. We need the full one-cent sales tax in order for us to help improve the infrastructure so that when Clayton County does come into the system, we have a first-class rail system available for them to join.”
What? Goodwill and best intentions do not mean anything in a contract. If it isn’t on paper, it does not exist.
There are at least three proposed rail extensions ahead of Clayton’s. North Fulton County and south DeKalb County have paid a penny sales tax for decades without a rail system. Clayton just executed a similar contract. Why would it be any different this time?
I want the voters of Clayton County to have their say in whether we have public transportation. I think a sales and use tax is the most equitable method of funding public transportation. I want Clayton to get what we pay for. This contract doesn’t do that.
Michael Edmondson is a Clayton County commissioner.
Commuter rail neither cheap nor easy
By John H. Friedmann
Over the last two decades, Norfolk Southern has seen a number of proposals for bringing commuter rail service to Clayton County.
As in prior years, Norfolk Southern remains willing to consider discussing rail service on our line through the county.
So why are we so concerned about a recently publicized budget and time line for commuter rail service to Clayton County? Simply put, it is because Norfolk Southern did not participate in the study, has not seen it, and therefore is not willing to stand behind its numbers and conclusions. The first time we learned that hard numbers and time lines were presented to Clayton County was when we read about it on the website of an Atlanta radio station. When we learned that county leaders were considering a tax increase based in part on these numbers and time line, Norfolk Southern was obligated to speak up.
While Norfolk Southern hasn’t seen a copy of the full study, the summary materials presented to the county lay out a concept for the proposed commuter rail service. But there is a lot we don’t know. What type of commuter rail trains would be used? What are the schedules of the proposed trains? How fast would the passenger trains run? All of these factors, and more, play a large role in how much it would cost taxpayers to acquire the capacity and access needed to run commuter trains. That’s why new rail passenger services are always the product of detailed studies, including simulations that figure out how to keep freight trains and passenger trains out of each other’s way. Sharing a narrow, century-old right of way is not easy and takes a lot of careful preparation.
Rail commuter service over Norfolk Southern’s line will be more difficult to implement now than even five years ago. As the economy has rebounded, Norfolk Southern’s freight business has grown to the point that we cannot accommodate new passenger rail service into Atlanta’s core, including on our line north of East Point. Port growth in Savannah, Brunswick, Jacksonville, and Miami is filling up Norfolk Southern’s primary route between Atlanta and Macon, so we are planning to move more freight on our line through Lovejoy and Jonesboro. In 2008, the federal government mandated the installation of a train collision-avoidance system called “positive train control” on all lines that have passenger trains – and this is a cost that did not even exist in previous studies.
It is important that we don’t lose sight of the big picture. Norfolk Southern’s primary contribution to the region’s economy is hauling freight. Norfolk Southern kept more than 2 million trucks off of I-75 through Clayton County in 2013, and increasing that number is the single best thing the railroad can do for mobility both locally and nationally. But while our business is hauling freight, Norfolk Southern is glad to figure out of if we can achieve similar returns by hosting commuter service.
John H. Friedmann is vice president of strategic planning for Norfolk southern Corporation.