Clayton MARTA: Vote yes or no?

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Transportation history will be made on election day Tuesday in Clayton County, one way or the other. Residents are being asked to vote “yes” or “no” on raising the county’s sales tax to eight percent in order to join MARTA. If approved, MARTA will expand outside its core counties for the first time and begin providing bus service as early as March; the agency also pledges to save half the revenue to build heavy rail or Bus Rapid Transit to link riders to the main system. There has been little organized opposition, but an opponent today warns to be careful what you wish, or vote, for.

Commenting is open.

Vote ‘yes’: It will mean opportunity

By Roberta Abdul-Salaam

In August 2013, I wrote about the loss of public transit in Clayton County: “For those who think transportation is a personal problem, consider the businesses that have abandoned the county and taken hundreds of jobs with them; consider the vacant buildings, empty shopping plazas and hundreds of teens who don’t have summer jobs. Without public transportation, the entire county continues to suffer. Foreclosures continue to rise, property values continue to fall, economic development declines, new businesses don’t come and county revenue is reduced.”

The loss of public transportation caused a lot of economic hardship for families and businesses. Now, just a day before the general election, I am again being asked, “Why is it important to vote ‘yes’ for MARTA in Clayton?” The answer is, “All of the above.” These are still valid reasons why we must vote “yes.”

By voting “yes,” citizens agree that a one-cent MARTA sales tax will improve the quality of life, economic development and job creation. By voting “yes,” we can transform an entire county and, potentially, a region. It will be life-changing for voters to say “yes” on a binding referendum that will bring public transportation to the county, by becoming a full member of MARTA.

In the words of U.S. Rep. David Scott, passage of this referendum will position Clayton for the enormous economic growth and development that includes Porsche and Aerotropolis, Fort Gillem and the communications center at Southlake Mall. We can expect many more to follow.

Voting “yes” will help reduce our 9.4 percent unemployment rate. A “yes” vote will provide thousands of Clayton citizens greater access to jobs that are more available and plentiful north of Atlanta. Voting “yes” will provide our senior citizens the independence to come and go as they please, to visit friends, travel to medical appointments, go shopping, attend church and/or spend more time with family.

Voting “yes” will enable students without transportation to attend colleges and technical schools here in Clayton and anywhere in the metro Atlanta region. At the same time, students from elsewhere will be able to access and attend Clayton colleges, such as Clayton State University, ITT University, Strayer, Shorter and other local campuses.

Voting “yes” will provide great benefit to local small businesses that often depend on foot traffic for customers. A “yes” vote will provide much-needed relief for apartment properties that saw a 50-percent decrease in occupancy when tenants moved to other areas with public transportation.

Voting “yes” will provide Clayton with quality, affordable bus service and a guaranteed opportunity for high-capacity transit options including commuter rail or bus rapid transit. With MARTA’s transit-oriented development, voting “yes” will position Clayton to follow the trend in other locales where public transit leads to economic growth, increased property values and added revenues for our municipalities.

When citizens vote to approve the contract signed by the Clayton County Commission and MARTA, we can look forward to bus service starting as early as March. No one is under the illusion that MARTA is perfect, but MARTA is the ninth-largest transit system in U.S. and has one of the best performance records in the industry.

Passage of this referendum means MARTA will hire more than 400 new employees, and its job fairs can offer job opportunities for Clayton residents. MARTA will also provide mobility service or paratransit service for elderly and disabled patrons. As a full member of MARTA, Clayton will have representation on the MARTA board and participate in future transit decisions.

Clayton is the home of the world’s busiest airport. Our citizens deserve world-class transit, and they are willing to pay for what they need by supporting this 1 percent sales tax to join MARTA. As a Friend of Clayton Transit, I’m encouraging Clayton County citizens to vote “yes” to jobs, “yes” to transit, “yes” to MARTA.

Roberta Abdul-Salaam is a founder and president of Friends of Clayton Transit and vice president of Citizens for Progressive Transit.

Vote ‘No’: Wrong fix worse than none

By James Eason

For Clayton County, the cost of joining MARTA would be much more than the proposed 1 percent sales tax increase. It would cost us the opportunity to create the system of public transportation we truly need: a well-funded, first-rate bus service that serves people who have no private transportation, not just downtown commuters.

Most of those folks need to go east and west as well as north and south; they need buses that come into their neighborhoods and take them close to their jobs, schools, grocery stores and medical centers. MARTA was never intended to do that; rapid transit is for commuting downtown.

Our county desperately needs a good bus system, but MARTA and the hollow promise of rapid rail are a very wrong choice. The right alternative is to fund our own system at half the cost. With the half-cent tax increase our commissioners originally proposed (and MARTA rejected), Clayton could soon provide an even better bus service than Cobb’s and Gwinnett’s, without MARTA’s high fares and exorbitant operating costs and without seriously harming our merchants.

A sales tax totaling 8 percent would be a heavy blow to our merchants, too many of whom have already closed their doors in recent years. Clayton is a small county, and our struggling retailers compete with nearby shopping areas in Henry and Fayette. The higher tax would make goods purchased in those counties cheaper, and the difference in cost of a large purchase would influence customers to shop outside Clayton.

The MARTA contract we are asked to approve is extremely weak on specifics and guarantees, and it is designed to serve metropolitan Atlanta’s needs, not Clayton’s. Contrary to rumors that half the tax would be placed in an escrow account, MARTA would be allowed to borrow on Clayton’s sales tax pledge and use the funds not only for Clayton transit, but for MARTA’s other projects.

It would also allow MARTA to choose bus rapid transit instead of rail and to put off work on any form of rapid transit indefinitely. It provides as follows: “Should the Extension as envisioned not prove feasible, (MARTA) will develop further plans for an alternative high-capacity transit option and it shall continuously operate and maintain the system so as to make its benefits primarily available to the residents of the Metropolitan Area.”

MARTA says it will provide a bus system with half our tax money and eventually develop rail service along the Norfolk Southern railroad with the other half. If so, how many of us would both live and work or go to school within a mile of a station along that railroad? As other authorities have pointed out, rapid rail is the wrong concept for the region’s low population density. Such a system is not equipped to serve neighborhoods, apartments, schools, retail centers and commercial areas. That would require more routes and smaller and more frequent buses than a downtown commuter system is designed for.

Commuter rail service is probably not feasible anyway. In a column published in the AJC on July 8, John H. Friedmann, Norfolk Southern’s vice president of strategic planning, wrote: “As the economy has rebounded, Norfolk Southern’s freight business has grown to the point that we cannot accommodate new passenger 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 through Lovejoy and Jonesboro.”

Mr. Friedmann also disclosed that his company did not participate in developing a plan for commuter rail, and that the concept presented to the county is not the product of a detailed study. In short, we have no valid basis for knowing what it would cost and how long, if ever, it would take to develop. We would be waiting for promised rail service that will probably never come. People along MARTA’s promised northwest rail line have been waiting for 35 years.

Clayton County should elect to operate its own transit authority or engage a commercial service. It would provide smaller, more frequent buses that would connect neighborhoods and local businesses. Merchants would benefit from improved access to their locations, and good public transportation would greatly enhance property values. A flexible bus system could be expanded later to incorporate bus rapid transit for commuters, using express lanes and special corridors, if and when they are built. This is probably the course MARTA ultimately would take, but at twice the cost.

James Eason is an engineer and Clayton County resident.



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