Long hindered by what some call “hypersegregation,” Atlanta’s MARTA train has never expanded beyond the metro core. But in November, one suburban county may vote to join the transit authority, making the region’s transportation system just a little more integrated — and equitable.
The MARTA train stretches like a lopsided plus sign over two counties: Fulton and DeKalb. Built around the same time as Washington, D.C.’s Metro, MARTA’s footprint has not expanded to the surrounding suburban counties. The reasons are myriad, but a Brookings Institute report from 2000 pointed to white flight and racial fear. Declaring that growth was “constrained by suburban resistance,” it showed that most MARTA riders were black, while the counties circling Atlanta that had long been reluctant to join were predominately white. In 1987, the New York Times quoted a MARTA chairman who said that regional transportation development was “held hostage to race.” The paper also reported that bumper stickers often seen on suburban Cobb County cars declared “Share Atlanta Crime — Support MARTA.”
In the ‘70s, Clayton County was one of the white suburbs that opted not to join (the train’s southernmost stop is the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport at Clayton’s northern tip). Over the last 30 years, however, Clayton’s demographics shifted to become much more diverse, from 90 percent white in 1980 to 66 percent black, 14 percent Latino and 19 percent white now.
However, its median income has remained low, with transit-dependence higher than surrounding suburban counties. Until 2010, many relied on the county’s bus service, C-Tran. That year, however, C-Tran was decommissioned when funding dried up. Residents had to face the decades-old decision that kept Clayton out of MARTA, and their county became a transportation desert.
At a packed board of commissioners meeting on July 1st, former State Rep. Roberta Abdul Salaam described what this looked like for formerly bus-dependent residents.
“I have people, students, young men that can’t take jobs for the summer because we don’t have transportation for them,” she said. “And someone said earlier don’t make it emotional — well let me just apologize now. I get emotional when I see little old women walking down Tara Boulevard in the ditch in the rain, and there’s not even anywhere to pull over and pick her up.”
For Clayton County Commissioner Shana M. Rooks, the disappearance of buses was also troubling because people moved to Clayton able to afford a home but not necessarily a car. When bus service was canceled, some were forced to relocate.
“Foreclosures rose after it was taken away,” she says. “I’m speculating, but I would surmise that people had to ask ‘do I move my job or do I move my home?’ They left to be closer to work.”
Earlier this year, commissioners began seriously considering joining MARTA, which would mean paying a one-penny sales tax. A non-binding referendum from 2010 showed that around 70 percent of Clayton County’s population supported joining the transit authority. When county commissioners held a series of meetings on the sales tax last July, the community mobilized — some walking long distances to attend.
“I got out of my bed, and I walked and I paid attention to the scenery along the way and I praised God along the way,” one resident, who said she’d walked to every meeting, told reporters in July.
“Residents came out and held their commissioners accountable,” says Brionte McCorkle, of the Sierra Club’s local chapter. Together with other advocacy groups, the Sierra Club has been active in Friends of Clayton Transit.
“They knew this was an opportunity; they called, emailed, packed every public meeting,” she says, adding, “That’s what changed this time. The public was really engaged every step of the way.”
In July, commissioners debated whether to put a full-cent or half-cent sales tax on the November ballot. The half-cent would fund bus service, run by MARTA, but the additional half-cent would go into a fund that could eventually help the train expand beyond its decades-old stop. Originally a half-cent passed, but the MARTA board rejected it. Finally, the full cent passed.
For Rooks, the full penny was a matter of good planning — reversing the county’s legacy of not prioritizing long-term transit goals.
“It we fail to plan, we plan to fail,” she says, adding that if leaders decades ago had passed a similar tax, “we’d be so much further along than we are now.”
In November, the vote will go before residents, and officials from both the county and MARTA seem optimistic it will pass.
“As we’ve done lots of visits, we’ve heard from lots of different citizens about the huge need for public transportation,” says MARTA General Manager Keith Parker, with potential uses ranging from “medical trips to school trips to recreation.”
Today, the Atlanta metro’s public transportation remains divided. Regional efforts to pass a one-percent sales tax for road and transit expansions failed in 2012. When the Braves announced in 2013 that they would move from downtown to suburban Cobb County, MARTA’s northern stopping point came into focus. The train doesn’t extend to the team’s new location, and when the chair of the county’s Republican party talked about prioritizing car transportation from the suburban north and east instead of rail transportation from Atlanta, 1987 didn’t look so far away.
But while that northern border still looks fixed, the southern one may not be. And that’s exciting, says McCorkle, because the southern county has such a need.
“This isn’t a situation where it’s like ‘let’s throw up some transportation where everyone has a car and can afford a car and would be fine without it,’” she says. “This is make or break for some people. It’s definitely an issue of equity, and people are watching with interest all across metro Atlanta, the state and even the country.”
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian