South DeKalb rail project remains sticking point on transportation list

DeKalb County leaders are split about how to use money from a proposed regional transportation tax to meet demand for a new rail line in the south part of the county.

Chief Executive Burrell Ellis wants to fully fund the $522 million project by pulling money from a popular road project in north Fulton County. A county commissioner has countered that the county should instead cut back spending on another rail line in central DeKalb.

But one thing was clear to the more than 250 residents who overflowed a community meeting Wednesday night: if the so-called I-20 project is not built, many won't support the penny sales tax when it goes before a public vote in the 10-county region next year.

Some, like Faye Coffield, felt so strongly that they made their points before rushing off to Rosh Hashanah or mid-week church services, before the meeting ended.

“It makes no sense to say we’re going to have an international city and put people on a bus,” said Coffield, an investigator who said she moved to south DeKalb in 1979 on the promise that rail would soon come. “If you put buses on I-20, all that will happen is you’ll be sitting in comfort while you’re stuck in traffic.”

Ellis, a member of the regional roundtable, has called for taking $297 million from a proposed upgrade to Ga. 400 to fully fund the five-mile rail line between the Indian Creek MARTA station and Wesley Chapel Road.

Without that extra money, the $6.14 billion  draft list calls for $225 million to pay for engineering and park and ride stations for that project – but not rail.

Recognizing the tough sell to Fulton and Cobb leaders to move money from a heavily trafficked road, DeKalb commissioner Lee May countered by suggesting DeKalb take money from another DeKalb rail project, a $700 million plan run along Clifton Road, and put it toward south DeKalb.

Doing so would anger people who live and work in central DeKalb, including thousands who work at the CDC, Emory University and the hospitals and clinics in that corridor.

“You’re talking about an area with no direct access to MARTA or interstates, whose jobs are literally life and death situations,” said Betty Willis, a representative from that area’s transit association.

DeKalb’s internal battle could affect horse trading as the full roundtable begins to fashion its final list of projects from the draft created by the group's five-member executive committee. DeKalb's meeting Wednesday was one of a dozen held region-wide, to gather citizen input as the full 21-member roundtable finalizes a list by Oct. 15.

Neither of the county’s proposals has been seconded by other roundtable leaders, including Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd.

Floyd said he would not favor taking money from Fulton or removing money from one transit project for another. But, he also said he was open to viewing the two rail proposals as one massive project.

The Clifton segment, which calls for linking MARTA’s Lindbergh station to the one in Avondale Estates, could easily flow into the eventual extension of that line, which now ends at Indian Creek.

“Getting connected by rail is vital to this entire region, but it’s hard to find enough money,” Floyd said. "This penny is so important, we have to look at all of our options and do whatever is reasonable to make this a success."