Transportation sales tax: Exurban counties list road priorities as DeKalb protests MARTA rail cut from I-20 corridor

By David Pendered

The political theater of the proposed 1 percent sales tax for transportation played out Tuesday in a harbinger of things to come as the final list of projects is crafted.

The day started with a show of solidarity by the Executive Committee of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable. The committee voted unanimously to approve what turned out to be about $715 million in sales-tax-funded road improvements in five outlying counties – Cherokee, Douglas, Henry, Fayette, and Rockdale.

The day ended with remarks from DeKalb County officials and advocates who forcefully requested the committee to add the proposed MARTA rail extension along Eastbound I-20. Construction costs of the 5.4 mile route range from about $523 million to $769 million, depending on whose estimate is used.

“Either you have I-20 [rail extension] on the list, or we’re going to do everything in our power to kill it [the proposed sales tax],” said John Evans, a former DeKalb commissioner who now leads the DeKalb chapter of the NAACP.

After the roundtable’s Executive Committee voted on the exurban road package of projects, Chairman Bucky Johnson asked the five committee members if they wanted to continue working on a to-do list that includes earmarking approximately $2.4 billion in road projects for Atlanta’s historic urban core – Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties.

Johnson found no takers.

The committee members ended their work after about an hour, dedicating the meeting’s final minutes to public comment and talking amongst themselves around their oblong table.

The committee plans to convene its final meeting Thursday. A meeting notice released Wednesday morning says the committee will “work to finalize and adopt a final draft constrained project list that it will turn over to the full Roundtable for discussion and adoption. The Roundtable has until October 15 to approve a final list.”

The items remaining on the to-do list include:

  • Approve a final list of $3 billion in transit projects;
  • Approve a final list of $715 in exurban road projects;
  • Discuss and approve a final list of $2.4 billion in urban road projects.

The analysis work being done by the staff is so exacting that, by the end of Tuesday, it was evident that even cost estimates of the exurban projects were not crystal clear.

For example, according to a staff note late in the day, the $770.8 million or so in non-transit projects that were discussed in the meeting did not reflect all the federal money that could be leveraged to help pay for the projects.

The staff analysis indicated that about $55.5 million of federal funds could be used. That would result in about $715.3 million of sales tax dollars being earmarked for the road projects in the five exurban counties.

Earlier in the day, the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners became the first local government to pass a resolution asking that a project be added to the tentative short list of projects approved by the Executive Committee.

That project is the MARTA rail extension that would run along the I-20 corridor from the Indian Creek Station to Wesley Chapel Road, which would get MARTA rail near the Mall at Stone Crest. The line has been on the drawing table for at least 30 years, according to the resolution.

At a press conference after the commission meeting, members a crowd comprised of about 40 elected officials and community advocates took turns at the podium, asking for the project to be included.

Here’s a snippet from a few speakers:

  • Burrell Ellis, DeKalb CEO: “We’ve got to move people to jobs…. It’s important that we have a line that goes into south DeKalb…. We have to make sure this part of the region, and the county, is served.”
  • Elaine Boyer, DeKalb commissioner, Dunwoody area: “To think that DeKalb would be ignored, after being a leader in the region, and not getting our investment back, is inconceivable.”
  • Lee May, DeKalb commissioner, Lithonia area: “I cannot be support of a transportation referendum [that does not include rail along I-20]. I will ask everyone to not support the transportation referendum.”
  • David Shutten, president, Organization of DeKalb Educators: “Without the I-20 rail corridor, this penny sales tax has no chance of getting close to one-quarter of the votes in DeKalb. It’s not fair for Fulton and DeKalb to be left off the table, when we’ve done more than our fair share for the past three decades.”
Note: This story was updated to reflect the announcement of the scheduled meeting of the Executive Committee for Thursday.

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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