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MARTA prepares for Clayton expansion … and beyond?

After historic vote, advocates say momentum builds for more bus and rail in metro region

Clayton County's historic Nov. 4 vote to join MARTA means a lot more than transit service coming to a desperately underserved area. Within Clayton, it could create Georgia's first commuter rail line. And advocates say it also adds momentum to MARTA's long-frustrated expansion plans in places like Cobb and Gwinnett.

"It puts further MARTA expansion on the table in a real way we haven't seen before," says Colleen Kiernan, executive director of the Georgia Sierra Club, which led grassroots activism behind Clayton's landslide MARTA vote. She even predicts Cobb and Gwinnett facing off in a "game of chicken" to see who first gets MARTA rail — and the economic development that follows.

"This has all the makings of a historic partnership," says MARTA CEO Keith Parker. He says public transit in Clayton will prove to be a "catalyst" of economic development that other counties will envy. "We think that we can be that catalyst with any other partner," he says.

Expansion is also an economic boon for MARTA itself. Since its inception in 1971, the transit agency has plugged along with only two sales-tax-paying member counties — DeKalb and Fulton — out of the originally planned five. Clayton's 1-percent sales tax will bring in at least $45 million a year during its 33-year MARTA contract, the Sierra Club estimates.

But first, there's the matter of expanding MARTA within Clayton. Bus service planned for a March 21 launch is just the beginning. MARTA has agreed to create some type of high-capacity rapid transit in Clayton as soon as possible — probably a decade or more — with a preference for commuter rail or, to a lesser extent, bus-rapid transit.

"We heard loud and clear from folks down there that they want a train there," says Kiernan, pledging that advocates will keep the political pressure on. There's leverage in Clayton's contract, too — MARTA has to spend Clayton's sales tax money within the county until the rapid transit service begins.

Parker notes that funding and railway usage rights are still up in the air. But, he says, studies and planning committees will begin "almost immediately."

Clayton politics is another issue that may hold lessons for expansion elsewhere. Though more than 70 percent of Clayton voters were pro-MARTA, division among county commissioners nearly tanked the referendum earlier this year. Kiernan ascribes that partly to personality clashes and partly to age-old "classist" fears that MARTA enables crime — concerns that helped persuade Clayton, Cobb, and Gwinnett to opt out 40 years ago.

Parker sees Clayton signing on as a triumph of his strategy to "remove any reasons for counties not to join MARTA." Since joining the agency he's helped improve policing and customer service and built relationships with legislators, community groups, and business associations. (The agency's dispute with the transit union is a downside, but it likely won't hobble expansion, Parker says.) It's a strategy he says will work elsewhere.

The main reason Clayton clamored for MARTA was desperate need in a county with high unemployment and poverty rates. Ever-growing traffic jams are creating different yet equally pressing transit demands in the northern suburbs.

Forty-two percent of metro Atlantans view transportation as the most pressing issue facing the region, according to a recent Atlanta Regional Commission survey — and 42 percent said expanding public transit was the best way to ease congestion. Forty-five percent of Gwinnett residents surveyed preferred more bus and rail over other fixes. Kiernan said the ARC survey results show "how Atlantans feel about transit solutions is far more progressive than where elected officials are." But Clayton's action shows attitudes are changing.

MARTA is working within its existing service area to meet such demand. The system is examining a light-rail line connecting Lindbergh and the Clifton Corridor, and studying a proposed Red Line extension to Alpharetta. And the Sierra Club is connecting with volunteers in Gwinnett, where two Community Improvement Districts have already studied MARTA expansion. Kiernan sees opportunity in Cobb, which will get hammered with Braves stadium traffic, and where the chairman is pushing a bus rapid transit plan for a 2016 vote. In short, Kiernan says that Clayton is helping to take metro Atlanta public transit back to the future, with the "original vision of MARTA" inching toward reality.

County leaders, however, aren't leaping to discuss long-term transit plans. A Cobb spokesman said Chairman Tim Lee would most likely not be commenting on possibly joining MARTA, saying in a voicemail that Cobb's existing bus service "ties into MARTA and works very well with the transit system." A Gwinnett spokeswoman would say only that there aren't any upcoming discussions about joining the service. An email to Gwinnett Chairwoman Charlotte Nash went unreturned.

If residents want MARTA or more mass transit, they'll have to speak up.

Additional reporting by Thomas Wheatley