In a display of solidarity, DeKalb County leaders stood together to protest the exclusion of the proposed I-20 heavy rail transit system from a preliminary list of projects being considered for funding through a possible regional sales tax.
“We currently have no rail stops in south DeKalb County at all,” said DeKalb County Commissioner Lee May during the Aug. 9 press conference and rally. “And now we’re being asked to support another one-cent sales tax. If I-20 is not included in the projects, I cannot be supportive of the transportation referendum.”
Nearly a week after the rally, the executive committee of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable voted to partially fund the project which would have extended the MARTA rail system from the Indian Creek station to the Stonecrest Mall area in Lithonia.
MARTA Executive Director Beverly Scott said the transportation roundtable left $225 million on the proposed list for the I-20 East project.
That amount would fund a “minimal operable segment” with park-and-ride bus stations at Stonecrest Mall, Candler Road, DeKalb Medical Center and Wesley Chapel, Scott said.
“These will be the key transit centers …that will eventually become starter [rail] stations,” Scott said.
These proposed park-and-ride locations would put “boots-on-the-ground service” in place sooner that a heavy rail transit system would.
But county leaders are not satisfied with that plan.
“It is very important and imperative that we have a voice in making sure that the I-20 corridor is respected and protected,” said DeKalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson.
“We believe that if we don’t have rail, we can’t support that additional penny,” Johnson said. “I’m not settling for buses.”
Georgia State Sen. Ronald Ramsey (D-43) said the I-20 corridor was at one point the top-rated area for transit expansion by the Atlanta Regional Commission.
“How it could go from the top-rated spot to not a place at the table at all? …[It] is inconceivable and it is unacceptable.”
Enacted last year by Georgia’s legislature, the Transportation Investment Act (HB 277) provides for regional referendums in 2012, which will include an option to vote on a penny-sales tax to fund various transportation projects, including transit, roadway safety, bicycle and pedestrian improvements.
A major part of regional transportation planning in the Atlanta metropolitan area has been geared toward improving and expanding the MARTA system.
DeKalb County, along with Fulton County and the city of Atlanta, has been paying a one-penny sales tax for 30 years to support MARTA. Now, DeKalb County leaders say they want to see a return on the county’s investment.
“DeKalb County has proven to be a strong regional partner, not just in word but in investment as well,” May said. “We have paid into Grady Hospital for decades now, knowing and understanding that that is to support really the entire state. We have paid that one cent sales tax to support MARTA transit for this region. We have to have that investment returned to DeKalb County.”
County leaders said they could not support a regional transportation sales tax if the I-20 project is excluded.
“There’s no way, shape, form or fashion that we’ll support that additional penny transportation tax if the I-20 corridor is not included,” said John Evans, president of the DeKalb chapter of the NAACP.
DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, who is a member of the Regional Transportation Roundtable, said the south DeKalb area needs to be served by a rail system.
“This is not just about what we as individuals want,” Ellis said. “This is about what makes good sense. If we’re going to address traffic congestion in the Atlanta region, we’ve got to start with transit and we’ve got to go to those areas where people live. We’ve got to move people to the jobs.”
DeKalb County school board member Jay Cunningham said the proposed rail system would help create a future for children in the county.”
“The rail line will bring jobs, will cut down on crime, will have a value to our community as kids want to come back and live in DeKalb County,” Cunningham said.
David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, said that “without the I-20 rail corridor, this penny sales tax has no chance …in DeKalb County.
“This one-cent sales tax will not pass the region without DeKalb County coming out in force in favor of it,” Schutten said.
Still on the proposed transportation list is the Clifton corridor project that would connect the Doraville or North Springs station to the Avondale Station. This project is also critical to the Atlanta region, DeKalb leaders said.
The regional roundtable has until Oct. 15 to finalize the project list, which will go to voters in a regional referendum in July 2012.