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How Clayton County Turned Its Zero-Transit Nightmare Around

Walking is great, but Clayton County's car-free households are about to get some transportation options. Photo courtesy of Georgia Chapter, Sierra Club
Walking is great, but Clayton County's car-free households are about to get some more transportation options. Photo courtesy of Georgia Chapter, Sierra Club
Walking is great, but Clayton County's car-free households are about to get some transportation options. Photo courtesy of Georgia Chapter, Sierra Club

Whether Tuesday’s election left you feeling elated or devastated, there’s one happy story we can all rejoice in: Clayton County, Georgia, will finally get transit service.

For 10 years the county had a skeletal bus system with three routes, known as C-TRAN, which was then completely dismantled about four years ago. Having gotten its jump-start with federal air quality money, C-TRAN never really had the sustainable funding it needed. In 2010, facing a severe budget crisis, county commissioners voted to eliminate the service entirely. Advocates begged the commissioners to try other options, even raising fares and cutting service; anything but removing it entirely. But in March 2010, C-TRAN ceased operation.

Clayton County is a spread-out suburban area south of Atlanta. It’s the most economically depressed county in the region, and 7.5 percent of households don’t have access to a car. Most of the towns in the area have huge arterial roads but no real downtown.

So without a car and without even the barest of transit systems, people walk -- along these unsafe arterial roads with no sidewalks.

“It’s not uncommon to see young people, old people, moms with babies, people with groceries walking in a ditch,” said Colleen Kiernan, director of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club. “In hot weather, in cold weather, in rain -- in all conditions, at all times of the day and night.”

Just eight months after the bus service ended, nearly 70 percent of voters in Clayton County agreed in a non-binding ballot measure to join the MARTA regional transit service.

But nothing happened.

Around the same time as the vote, officials were putting together a statewide transportation package for a one-cent sales tax known as T-SPLOST. In Clayton County, the projects to be funded by the T-SPLOST package were mostly road expansions. The $20 million to be allocated to commuter rail would barely pay for more feasibility studies -- certainly not any actual infrastructure. The movement to join MARTA stalled while the region waited to see how the T-SPLOST vote would turn out.

Meanwhile, MARTA wasn’t in much of a position to expand anyway. The system was running a deficit in the tens of millions. But an audit showed where the agency could cut costs and improve efficiency, and just then a new general manager came in who acted decisively to carry out the recommended reforms. Under Keith Parker's leadership, MARTA closed its operating deficit, improved its credit rating, and started restoring services that had been cut back. Transit frequency improved and the agency stopped hemorrhaging money, improving public sentiment toward the system and putting it in a more favorable position to consider expansion.

So Clayton County started to again consider joining MARTA. But in order for the county commission to put the sales tax on the ballot, its members needed assurance that the money raised in Clayton would stay in Clayton -- and not be siphoned off to help pay for a big rail extension along Route 400 in the wealthy northern suburbs.

With the advocacy of Friends of Clayton Transit -- a coalition of 25 environmental, religious, labor, and civil rights groups -- Tuesday's ballot initiative to join MARTA won 74 percent of the vote. What Clayton County residents will get for their one-cent sales tax -- over 33 years -- puts their old C-TRAN bus system to shame.

Instead of three bus lines, they’ll have 10. Those will begin operation in March, as soon as the tax takes effect. Plus, a new commuter rail line -- or “comparable service” like bus rapid transit, according to news reports -- will go from the East Point station north of the airport, through Hapeville, past the old Ford plant that’s being redeveloped as Porsche’s new North American headquarters, past the shuttered Ft. Gillem army base that’s slated for redevelopment, through downtown Forest Park, through Clayton State University (which has already built the infrastructure for the train), through the towns of Morrow and Jonesboro, and ending in Lovejoy.

According to Kiernan, the new line is expected to follow the right-of-way of an abandoned Norfolk Southern freight rail line that served the old Ford plant, but negotiations with Norfolk Southern are still ongoing.

MARTA estimates that the line will open in 2022 as far as Jonesboro, with the last segment completed in 2025.

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