SUNDAY ISSUE: MARTA AND CLAYTON COUNTY

Toward a better ride

Recent years have shown that there’s no easy, or fast, road toward needed transportation improvements in metro Atlanta.
Achieving needed milestones is arduous work now. Thus, it’s worthwhile to celebrate them when, beyond the odds, they do still occur.
Seen that way, the new reality that Clayton County citizens will vote in less than four months on whether to join MARTA is especially noteworthy. And it’s equally encouraging, too, that the fragile political pilgrimage necessary to even permit this vote did not collapse at some point along the way.
It did not. Which means the 3-1 vote earlier this month by the Clayton County Commission to place a MARTA penny sales tax referendum on the November ballot marks a  historic moment for metro Atlanta. The commission’s vote during a special holiday weekend meeting followed a one-step-up, one-step-back political waltz that had left the proposal in jeopardy at times. In the end, the Clayton commissioners voted to let the people decide. They are to be commended for that move, and for recognizing that the return of transit is critical to their county’s future.
The prospect of public transportation rolling toward a comeback in Clayton also has significant meaning for the rest of the metro as well. Clayton and MARTA’s courtship represents an important recognition that the Atlanta metro really is — or can and should be — more than the sum of its respective parts. We’re pleased to see another core county publicly acknowledge that “region” is not really a bad word and concept.
That we’re here speaks well of MARTA’s performance under CEO Keith Parker, who’s worked hard to improve the agency and its relationships with public officials.
If this deal doesn’t somehow fall apart — and Clayton voters go along with the idea in November — MARTA would then be three-fifths of the way toward the long-ago envisioned transit system linking five counties and the city of Atlanta.
That is a big step forward for this metro. One that will bolster our ability to create jobs and bring workers to them — regionwide.
The lack of transit has no doubt hindered economic development in Clayton and adjacent areas since the last C-Tran bus departed in 2010 as the result of funding shortages. Anyone driving the stretch of Ga.  85, for example, between the south edge of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and the Fayette County border sees a large number of businesses along that busy road. Potential workers without vehicles lack a reliable way to take advantage of jobs there. Similar situations exist along other Clayton County thoroughfares.
Bringing back some form of transit can help Clayton improve its economic vitality. The contract approved by Clayton and the MARTA board lays out a reasonable, stepped approach to that goal.
Buses will reappear first. Given they’re the easiest, cheapest and fastest option to restore, that makes sense. Passengers could begin boarding on Clayton routes as early as next year.
Beyond that, things are murkier.
The contract calls for accruing tax receipts toward future construction of either a north-south passenger rail line or an “alternative high capacity transit option,” likely Bus Rapid Transit, which brings some of the attributes of rail to rubber-tired vehicles.
Adding either rail or BRT will be tricky. Commuter trains, at minimum, will require challenging negotiations with freight hauler Norfolk Southern.
Reaching a public-private partnership deal will likely require buying access for passenger trains using public money for rail line improvements. BRT, among other things, requires using roads in a new way by carving out space for buses to load, unload and move passengers with less interaction with other vehicles.
It’s too early to authoritatively say what any Phase 2 of Clayton transit will look like. Conversations and studies around both rail and BRT should continue, with the goal of finding cost-effective ways of moving the most metro Atlantans now and in the region the future will create.
Toward that broad end, adding Clayton County to the metro transit mix should prove a good thing. We hope the momentum continues elsewhere around the region.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

 

Buses, not costly rail, needed in Clayton

By Benita Dodd
By all accounts, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) is operating infinitely more responsibly and responsively and, for that, CEO Keith Parker and a largely sensible MARTA board deserve credit. Unfortunately, that and the flimsy prospect of MARTA rail service for Clayton County hardly justify adding a penny to Clayton’s sales tax for MARTA to operate its mass transit.
There’s that famous saying: “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” Many Clayton workers have struggled with public transportation since the 2010 shutdown of C-Tran service. Remember why it shut down? That was the result of a budget deficit: C-Tran cost $10 million a year to operate, but the farebox brought in just about $2.5 million. Cost-effectiveness, clearly, is of paramount concern for Clayton.
Consequently, it’s unwise to put county residents on the hook for a penny sales tax for 10 years when all agree it would take just a half-penny to fund efficient bus service. And it makes no sense to give MARTA an extra half-penny to hold onto in the unlikely event it can establish rail service beginning in 2022.
The writing is on the wall: Just two days after Clayton’s commission voted for the penny sales tax referendum, the federal government unfunded the proposed Atlanta-Lovejoy commuter rail project that had been debated for 10 years.
Setting aside what an 8 percent sales tax will do to Clayton businesses’ competitiveness, consider MARTA’s cost of doing business. Its operating expense per passenger mile is 93 cents; more than 85 percent of the total operating expenses for MARTA’s unionized, in-house operation comprise salaries, wages and benefits. By contrast, with outsourced bus service, operating expenses are far lower for Cobb (49 cents) and Gwinnett (29 cents). It makes sense to establish a bus service partnership — whether public-private or with MARTA — through an open, competitive bidding process. That can link into MARTA rail, as Cobb, Gwinnett and GRTA do.
Proponents argue Clayton rail service would facilitate regional connectivity by linking with MARTA rail. But Atlanta’s suburban sprawl lacks the density that makes MARTA expansion the most cost-effective option. Regional connectivity in the future will be facilitated far more effectively through flexible, less-costly express bus service. As Georgia builds out metro Atlanta’s managed lane system into a seamless express-lane network that acts as a virtual bus rapid transit route, rail will be even less optimal in suburban counties.
Clayton’s residents want to get from point A to point B as cost-effectively and efficiently as possible. Clayton needs leadership standing up for the mass transit they need, not jumping on the bandwagon of the “world-class city” mantra. It’s commendable that MARTA wants to grow, but it shouldn’t do so at the expense of Clayton’s workers.

Benita Dodd is vice president of The Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

Clayton’s MARTA vote should be a regional lesson

By Colleen Kiernan
The recent decision by the Clayton County Commission to allow Clayton County voters to decide whether to join MARTA is a watershed moment for transportation policy in our region. If voters there say “yes” to MARTA in November — and given the enthusiasm seen in recent public meetings and past ballot questions, the chances of passage appear strong — it will be the most significant infusion of new transportation funding in the Atlanta region in years.

Success in Clayton can also help provide a template for progress on transportation elsewhere. The following principles, all of which have been central to the Clayton MARTA campaign, should also guide our efforts on transportation at the regional and state level.

Get the house in order before expanding: You don’t start an addition to your house when the existing structure is falling down, and we shouldn’t blame voters for thinking in those terms when voting down the T-SPLOST in 2012. Take MARTA as an example: two years ago, the anchor of our region’s transit system was in rough shape. The agency was running a structural deficit in the tens of millions of dollars, bus and rail service had been cut to the bone, and relations between MARTA and state officials had hit a low.

Just months after the referendum failed, the agency hired Keith Parker, a young, reform-minded outsider, as its new chief executive. What’s happened at MARTA in the last two years is nothing short of remarkable. The deficit has been erased, service is being restored, and a new culture of openness and accountability has been established at all levels. The post-2012 progress is a big part of why the Clayton Commission felt confident enough to put MARTA on the ballot this year, four years after saying no to a similar opportunity. What’s more, we are now seeing serious talk among legislators of possible state support for MARTA — something unthinkable just a few years ago.

Emphasize incremental, locally-driven strategies rather than “one size fits all”: One of the hallmarks of the recent success In Clayton County, is that the push to expand MARTA was not the product of backroom dealing or top-down decision making. The county’s elected officials were initially hesitant to put MARTA (and the associated tax increase) on the ballot this year. But one packed public meeting after another — even on a Saturday morning during a holiday weekend — eventually convinced a majority of commissioners that community demand for transit was too strong to be denied. Now, as we head into the November referendum, ordinary citizens in Clayton have a real feeling of investment in the process that led to the vote this fall — something that never really existed in 2012. Recreating that sense of community ownership will be essential to any future transportation investment efforts.

Focus on providing travel options, not fighting congestion: For too long, transportation planning and funding in Atlanta have been framed in terms of “fighting” traffic congestion. In fact, the entire $8 million pro-T-SPLOST “Untie Atlanta” campaign was based on the notion that congestion can be conquered if we throw enough money and asphalt at it.

Not only did the message clearly fail to resonate with voters, but the premise is inherently flawed. Traffic congestion is simply a necessary byproduct of thriving cities. The most forward-thinking regions have moved beyond the red herring of “congestion relief” and are instead focusing on giving residents meaningful alternatives to sitting in traffic, particularly by making walking, biking, and mass transit viable options for more people. It’s time for those strategies to form the backbone of our approach going forward as well.

Two years after the commission dismantled the C-Tran bus system in 2010, Clayton County voters elected new leadership in 2012 — Chairman Jeff Turner and Commissioner Shana Rooks. Both ran on a pro-transit platform, and after taking office demonstrated their leadership by involving their constituents. Last year, they commissioned a transit feasibility study and engaged thousands of Clayton residents to hear about where and what the mobility needs are and how they should be met.

Regional leaders should take note of this. There’s an old saying that if you do things the way you always have, you’ll get what you’ve always got. Today, metro Atlanta has traffic congestion and few other options. Ask metro Atlantans what they want, and regional leaders will be inspired by the solutions their constituents will demand — as long as they believe their voices will be heard.

Colleen Kiernan is Georgia Chapter Director of the Sierra Club.


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