By Maggie Lee
Some six weeks before Atlanta City Council is expected to vote on Emory University’s petition to join the city, a state lawmaker who’s running for mayor is raising questions about the equity of possible spending on a light rail line in the would-be part of Atlanta.
And the current mayor is pushing back on any suggestion that any part of town is being ignored.
State senator and mayoral candidate Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) told a panel of state lawmakers on Monday morning that “I’m very concerned that this Emory line appears to be jumping in line … for the money that was voted on by the citizens of the city of Atlanta last November.”
Fort was referring to last year’s vote to add a half-penny to Atlanta’s sales tax and use the more than $2 billion to be raised over 40 years for MARTA expansion inside the city limits.
He’s also referring to Emory’s June 27 request that Atlanta expand its city limits, bringing the campus into the city.
Besides the jobs and students at Emory and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there’s a proposed big transit spend there. The campus lies in the path of a proposed light rail line that could link Lindbergh Center station to campus and possibly points further south and east all the way to Avondale, the so-called “Clifton Corridor” project.
“It’s an issue of equity and transparency. I hope that we will get more transparency from City Hall, that we’ll get more transparency from Emory and the CDC, and to the extent necessary from MARTA. It’s appalling, it’s appalling what we’re seeing here over the summer of 2017,” Fort told the state Capitol meeting of the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Oversight Committee.
He said that when his constituents went to vote, “they did not know that they were competing with, would be competing with, Emory and the CDC.”
Emory referred questions to a spokeswoman for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
Reed’s spokeswoman said the Emory-area annexation would make it possible that the Clifton Corridor project could get built, but does not guarantee that it will.
“That project, like the other proposals on the project list, need to be studied and evaluated to determine, among other things, which would best qualify for federal matching funds. I would also remind you that this past winter, at the mayor’s request, MARTA initiated a study of the Campbellton Road Corridor for a possible light rail line, so the suggestion that either the city or MARTA is ignoring other parts of town is false,” the spokeswoman said in a written statement.
She also wrote that Fort is a “failed candidate” for mayor.
“As his campaign spirals, he’s doing everything he can to remain relevant in the public conversation before he drops out of the race after failing to qualify. He has now gone to the length of fabricating falsehoods about the historic, once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand MARTA within the city of Atlanta over the next forty years,” she wrote.
Fort and six other candidates are in something of a statistical tie for second place behind mayoral frontrunner Mary Norwood, according to a survey of likely voters published by WXIA last week. The seven all polled between four and 10 percent to Norwood’s 27 percent in a poll with a 4.4-point margin of error.
Fort and Reed have a history of antagonism. One of Fort’s campaign mantras is that City Hall has “lost its way” and is concerned more with billionaires and mega-projects than regular people. Reed has said Fort is “one of the most disappointing humans I’ve ever seen” and would be a “disaster” as mayor.
Clifton Corridor is one of many “potential” projects on the MARTA expansion menu, as published ahead of the referendum, though the project would need to pass through other jurisdictions besides Atlanta. The list that also includes proposals to extend MARTA heavy rail both east and and west, more stations on existing MARTA heavy rail lines and more bus services, among other things.
MARTA General Manager and CEO Keith Parker, speaking at the Monday Capitol meeting, said that ultimately the city of Atlanta makes the decision about scheduling and phasing of projects in conjunction with MARTA staff.
“No one from the city of Atlanta has come to us as a staff and said that the Emory project, or any other project for that matter, takes precedence over any other project. The phasing of those projects will be done as was discussed during the campaign,” Parker said at the committee meeting.
“We gave the full list of, ‘here’s all the potential projects’ and then said as we started collecting those funds and we started to get more information we’ll be coming back to the city along with some exhaustive comment periods and public involvement and then the city would lay out, ‘here’s the phasing of those various projects,’” said Parker.
Draft maps of the Clifton Corridor line show that light rail could get much of the way to Emory via a route inside today’s Atlanta city limits. But it would still need to pass through a part of DeKalb that isn’t in any proposal to join the city.
And funding would need to be in place before MARTA would start building.
It wasn’t the work of a morning committee meeting to figure out that tangle of questions.
“There’s a lot of ‘if this, then what,’ all those variables out there,” committee chair state Rep. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody.)