Clayton approves MARTA contract for November ballot

Residents want transit. They should have had the right to vote, and now they have it'


  • John Ruch
  • Residents packed commission chamber on Saturday on holiday weekend for historic vote

MARTA service took a major step toward coming to Clayton County this morning after county commissioners approved a 1-cent sales tax to fund it in a surprising, last-minute move. The deal, which would bring MARTA buses next year and rail or a similar high-capacity service later, now heads to the November ballot for voter approval.

Hundreds of residents, many clad in pro-MARTA green shirts, packed the Clayton commission chambers in Jonesboro for the vote. They cheered the decision, with many supporters hugging MARTA board chairman Robbie Ashe.

"Thank God we got it done," Clayton Chairman Jeffrey Turner told CL about the decision, which barely beat a July 7 deadline to call for the referendum. "Residents want transit. They should have had the right to vote, and now they have it."

If approved by voters - they overwhelmingly supported the move in non-binding referendum four years ago - the contract would put half of the tax money toward starting MARTA bus service next year. The other half would go into an escrow account dedicated to planning and building future MARTA rail service, or an alternative service if rail proves to be totally impossible.

Clayton has not had any transit service since a bus line, lacking dedicated funding, went under in 2010 - the same year voters demanded its restoration in a referendum that resulted in no action. The county suffers high poverty and unemployment rates despite having most of Hartsfield-Jackson airport in its boundaries, limiting many people from accessing jobs there or elsewhere. The need for local transit was evident on a drive to the meeting. Many people could be seen walking with shopping bags along wide roads with no sidewalks.

Just days ago, the MARTA deal looked to be in trouble. Last Wednesday, the commissioners voted 3-2 to approve an altered deal with only a half-penny tax. But MARTA's board said it was 1 cent or no deal.

The surprising swing vote in this morning's 3-1 MARTA approval was Commissioner Sonna Singleton. She voted in favor of the half-penny proposal, and just yesterday morning she issued a public email declaring that MARTA's deal "at this point... does not appear to be in our best interest."

"I voted for transit last Tuesday for a half-percent tax based on information given to the board from MARTA. As it became more apparent that people wanted to vote regardless of the contract from MARTA, I felt as a public servant I had to allow the people to make that decision," Singleton told CL this morning.

Commissioner Gail Hambrick skipped the vote. Yesterday, she sent out an email virtually identical to Singleton's - they collaborated on the language, Singleton said - and said that holiday weekend plans prevented her from attending. Hambrick did not respond to questions about what those plans were.

The sole "no" vote was Commissioner Michael Edmondson. He expressed concerns that the contract does not guarantee rail service, lacks enough county leverage to renegotiate, and could send escrow account money to MARTA creditors.

The commission's agenda included a second proposal that addressed those concerns. It inserted contract language saying that if MARTA did not begin rail service within 10 years, the sales tax would revert to a half-penny and the escrow money would go to expanded local bus service.

But the approval of the full-penny tax rendered that proposal moot. Edmondson unsuccessfully sought to have the tax rollback idea added as an amendment. County Vice Chair Shana Rooks warned that altering the contract language could make it impossible for MARTA to approve it in time for the ballot referendum deadline. County attorney Jack Hancock said the law is unclear as to whether the contract can be altered before the referendum, but the commission majority clearly wanted to take no chances.

Meanwhile, Ashe assured the commission that MARTA is not looking to worm out of rail.

"It is our absolute and 100 percent commitment that the contract... was intended to give Clayton County an enforceable guarantee" that the money will go to planning rail, he said. And the only way escrow money would go elsewhere is if MARTA went totally bankrupt and creditors swooped in, he said.

"Absent that not-going-to-happen hypothetical, you have a guarantee from us, a legal guarantee and my personal guarantee" that the escrow money will be spent on rail planning, Ashe said.

Turner told CL that he would "entertain" the idea of amending the contract later with the tax rollback language. But first, he said, "We have to provide a transit system."