I applaud former state Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam and County Commission Chairman Jeffrey E. Turner for their leadership in seeking to re-create the Clayton County transit system. They correctly observe how destructive it was to citizens and employers when in 2010 transit services were eliminated due to budgetary constraints. This impact not only affects Clayton County but all of metro Atlanta, as needed workers are unable to get to where the jobs are. The impact on jobs, education and health will continue until reasonable transit options are available.
While transportation leaders are working to address regional transit options for the future, the Clayton’s County needs are for today, not just tomorrow. Unfortunately, absent an infusion of substantial federal or state subsidies or additional taxes, such as DeKalb and Fulton counties’ MARTA penny sales tax, sufficient traditional transit funds are not available to re-create a system that addresses the needs of citizens and employers.
But with challenges come opportunity. My recommendation is the Clayton County Commission engage professional transit planners to develop a request for quotes for a privately operated transit system. As Chairman Turner aptly noted, transit in Clayton should initially meet basic needs, not wants, of citizens and employers. I add that it should take into account rider costs to keep it affordable, and take advantage of available grant programs to provide subsidizes where appropriate.
With county commission oversight, the new transit system should be privately operated to ensure effectiveness and efficiency so that it may be sustainable. In other parts of metro Atlanta, we already see private bus operators picking up passengers in selected employment corridors, so we know it’s possible. Clayton’s transit would be similar, but pursuant to a broader countywide and properly coordinated transit plan.
In essence, the new system would follow the private-public partnership model Gov. Deal has championed to provide interstate highway congestion relief. Under that model, new toll lanes are added to increase capacity and reliability. Over 50 percent of new interstate lanes’ construction and maintenance are paid for with public funds; the balance is paid by the private sector and users of the tolled roads.
Instead of the private sector investing in road construction, in Clayton, capital would be used to purchase buses and related infrastructure. Instead of vehicle tolls, passenger fares would cover operational costs. While subsidies would still be required, subsidies are also required to pay for the tolled roads. The advantage of the public-private partnership model is the subsidies are significantly smaller.
As metro Atlanta moves forward developing regional transit, Clayton’s new system will serve as a role model and partner. Clayton’s leaders have the opportunity to create a transit system that works for today with tomorrow in mind. So let’s all get on board with the county’s leaders and support their efforts.
Bob Dallas, former director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, is chairman of the Dunwoody Planning Commission.