Clayton County is on the verge of getting a public transit system for the first time since 2010. Residents are demanding it. A new county chairman took office last year with a pledge to restore it. A consultant team is studying various options for doing it.
But transit activists fear all the studying is distracting the county from the obvious best option: MARTA bus service. MARTA is the only option with built-in dedicated funding and the possibility of expanding to commuter rail later. And Clayton voters already demanded MARTA in a 2010 non-binding referendum.
The clock is ticking. By a soon-to-expire state law, Clayton voters would have to approve MARTA and its penny sales tax this November or never again in the foreseeable future — but the transit option study won't be done until year's end.
The study could "derail the vote," warns Brionté McCorkle of the Georgia Sierra Club, which is about to start a major petition drive for Clayton MARTA service. "It's particularly frustrating when you see a clear path of action and it's just not being acted on."
But Clayton County Chairman Jeffrey Turner says the county doesn't have to wait for the final study. He recently indicated that he would ask the consultant team to deliver some early findings soon enough to call a MARTA referendum if that looks like the way to go.
"I believe we need a transit system, and I'm fighting hard to get it," Turner says. "[But] transit systems are not my forte. That's why I want to hear from experts. ... We want to do it better and smarter than last time. Last time, the system failed."
That last time was C-TRAN, a limited but popular bus service that ran from 2001 to 2010. Operated first by the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and later by MARTA, C-TRAN had no dedicated subsidies and was shut down by county commissioners to balance the budget. Privately run bus services have failed.
Everyone agrees the end of transit was devastating to this majority-minority south metro county with high unemployment and poverty rates — despite having most of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in its boundaries. People struggled — and still struggle — to get to work, school, the pharmacy, and the grocery store. Seniors and college graduates are especially affected.
"Clayton County has had a high unemployment rate for a while," Turner says. "Some of that can be directly attributed to the loss of the transit system."
In 2010, the same year C-TRAN shut down, Clayton citizens voted for full MARTA service in a non-binding referendum. There has been no vocal opposition to MARTA since then. Yet Clayton did nothing toward becoming the third county in the MARTA system. And while Turner said a MARTA vote could happen this year, he also floated the possibility that it, too, could be non-binding.
"We are concerned the county might similarly let this opportunity slip through their fingers," McCorkle says. Along with Citizens for Progressive Transit and the Partnership for Southern Equity, the Sierra Club is meeting with Clayton residents and pushing commissioners to call for a MARTA vote before an early July deadline.
Turner acknowledges MARTA's depth of experience and the crucial factor of dedicated funding subsidies. But he says the county needs to review all the options, which include a county-run system and private bus companies.
"We haven't taken anything off the table," he says. "I think we owe it to the citizens to come up with the best possible transit system."