Clayton County Commissioners Approve Half-Cent Sales Tax, MARTA Board Rejects

Clayton County is becoming closer to joining the likes of Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, & Gwinnett as officials approved a binding referendum that would have asked residents whether they supported a half-cent sales tax to establish transit service. However, the problem now is that the MARTA Board has rejected Clayton’s inclusion into the system with a half-cent sales tax, maintaining that it would unfair to DeKalb and Fulton who have both pay a full cent sales tax.

County officials eliminated C-tran after a 4-1 vote back in March of 2010 as the county was struggling to pay the $10 million annual subsidy to keep service operating. This immediately left more than 2 million annual riders without this transportation alternative, the equivalent of eliminating the entire GRTA Xpress bus network. Of those riders left without C-tran, 65% indicated they were without cars based on a 2010 poll.

Despite the County’s fiscal decision to eliminate C-tran in 2010, community support for transit in Clayton is strong. A nonbinding referendum in 2010 showed nearly 70 percent of Clayton residents favored joining Fulton and DeKalb counties to support MARTA. Following the approval from the state legislature following the passage of HB 1009, county commissioners were able to proceed with Tuesday’s vote.

With the half-cent sales tax the Clayton County Board of Commissioners approved Tuesday evening, Parker made it clear that the county would only receive standard bus service and it would not be guaranteed the MARTA Board would approve such a measure. This contrasts with Parker’s pitch last week which outlined the service the transit agency could provide with a full cent sales tax. With such a tax, Parker proposed high capacity transit options the county would receive. One alternative, pegged at $270 million, would involve sharing Norfolk Southern’s preexisting infrastructure to provide commuter rail service from MARTA’s East Point Station to Jonesboro. Estimated at $350 million, the second option would replicate the same route and right-of-way but construct an exclusive parallel track which would eliminate any interference with current Norfolk Southern freight traffic.

However, some Commissioners may have been turned off at Parker’s pitch after Norfolk Southern’s General Director of Passenger Policy John Edwards wrote a letter dissenting the plan. In it, Edwards claimed that implementing service along their right-of-way would be neither “cheap, fast, or easy.” Other Commissioners, like Sonna Singleton, had concerns about the impact of raising the sales tax on the retailers and business within the County, fearing that some would move to neighboring counties without the additional tax.

Regardless of their reasons, the decision was made to go with the half-cent sales tax rather than the full cent which then raised concerns whether MARTA’s Board of Directors would welcome Clayton County into the system. Because MARTA’s current members of DeKalb and Fulton pay a full cent sales tax for their service, it was unlikely the MARTA Board was going to approve Clayton’s special case and it was officially rejected unanimously on Wednesday morning.

Now the ball is back in Clayton County’s court as they must approve a one-cent sales tax referendum by July 6th or the county will not be joining MARTA. Stay tuned as we follow this issue.