DeKalb County residents and leaders continue to fight for funding for an I-20 rail project connecting Wesley Chapel Road to the Indian Creek MARTA station.
“If you are not willing to give us the I-20 transit, I will personally go all over southeast [DeKalb] to tell people to vote ‘no’ because we need transit,” said DeKalb resident Faye Coffield during a transportation referendum forum held in Decatur on Sept. 28.
“I cannot support this [referendum] unless you put the I-20 rail project back in,” Coffield said.
Enacted last year by Georgia’s legislature, the Transportation Investment Act provides for regional referendums in 2012 on a penny-sales tax to fund various transportation projects, including transit, roadway safety, and bicycle and pedestrian improvements.
In August, the Atlanta roundtable voted to partially fund the I-20 project, which would have extended the MARTA rail system from the Indian Creek station to the Stonecrest Mall area in Lithonia.
MARTA officials say the proposed $225 million allocated by the roundtable would pay for five park-and-ride stations at Stonecrest Mall, Fairington Road/Lithonia Industrial Blvd., Wesley Chapel Road, Candler Road and East Atlanta. The stations would eventually be converted to high-capacity transit stations.
Coffield said she objects to the proposal to partially fund the I-20 project.
“If you put a bus on I-20 all it means is you’re going to have a comfortable place to wait while you sit in that traffic,” Coffield said.
As requested by a unanimous resolution by the Board of Commissioners, DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis submitted to the regional transportation roundtable on Sept. 28 an amendment that would fully fund the project.
“The extension of the I-20 East rail is a critically important project by any objective measure,” Ellis told the roundtable members.
“If we can move beyond county by county or jurisdictional thinking and look at what we’re doing in a regional plan, we would see the need to move people from that congestion area,” Ellis said. “I think it would be a serious omission not to have that included.”
According to the rules of the regional transportation roundtable, a funding source must be identified to amend the proposed list. Since the Board of Commissioners did not initially identify a funding source, the Ellis administration selected a proposed project to expand Ga. 400.
“The Ga. 400 project while important, was a logical choice because it’s a state road, it’s a toll road, it has its own source of funding and has a very good chance of getting additional federal funding,” Ellis said after the meeting.
“We don’t want to take away from rails because we think the amount of funds going to rails should be increased,” Ellis said. “Transit should be increased and not decreased.”
Ellis said “the identification of the Ga. 400 plan was a starting point for the conversation but the conversation, obviously, will have to continue.”
John Eaves, chairman of the Fulton County Commission, objected to Ellis’ choice of Ga. 400.
“I hope that we can find an alternative source to support your project other than the Ga. 400 project,” Eaves said. “It is not only crucial for Fulton County but it’s crucial for this region.
“I hope we, as neighboring counties, can work together [and] continue to coexist in a very harmonious way,” said Eaves, who is a member of the transportation roundtable along with Ellis.
On Sept. 28, Commissioner Lee May wrote a letter to Ellis with another possible funding source for the I-20 rail project.
In the letter signed by several DeKalb elected officials, May proposed that the funding for the $700 million Clifton corridor be reduced to $462.5 million. Under the proposal, the I-20 project would be increased from $225 million to $462.5 million.
“The only sure bet in terms of receiving full funding is to do it internally” with proposed funding already allocated to DeKalb County, May said. The proposal would fund the I-20 rail project and partially fund the Clifton corridor project, making it “super-competitive” for federal funding, May said.
“We can get the votes for that [proposal] on the regional roundtable, if the funding comes from within,” May said. “Outside of that, it’s a crap shoot. We have to have I-20.”
Bonita West, a member of the Atlantans Building Leadership for Empowerment transportation task force, said that if low wage and disabled riders along the I-20 corridor “are forced to pay two pennies for a transportation system and still cannot access the new jobs created within the surrounding counties, it is no longer an investment act but a transportation deduction act.”
“DeKalb has already prepaid for the I-20 East rail line” during the last 30 years, West said.
Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd, a member of the executive committee of the transportation roundtable, said the roundtable needs to develop “a list of projects that excites people in this region.”
The list “also has to make you, when you walk into that ballot box, think you’re going to get your money’s worth,” Floyd said. “This is a chance we probably won’t get again—to collect taxes from 10 counties for a regional transit system.”
The roundtable is set to vote on the final project list on Oct. 13.