Opinion: Annexation exposes weaknesses

The Atlanta metro’s regional development, transportation shortcomings are exposed by the issues around a critical piece of job-magnet real estate.

The squabble over the proposed annexation of a rather-significant parcel of 744 now-unincorporated acres into the City of Atlanta points out important shortcomings vexing this region. Yes, “region.” More on that in a bit.

The dispute, now headed for arbitration it seems, stems from the annexation application filed by Emory University, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a few other big-league stakeholders located along a powerhouse stretch of intellectual capital.

DeKalb County has raised substantial concerns about infrastructure, the cost of same and possible effects on adjacent neighborhoods that would remain in unincorporated DeKalb. They’re well within their fiduciary duty as taxpayer stewards to sound the alarm.

A similar posture seems behind landowners’ push to enter Atlanta. Part of the attraction is the upside of joining a city that seems to be on an ascendant path befitting its logical stature as the core of a powerhouse region. Think biosciences belt, synergy with Georgia Tech and so on. High on the priority list, too, seems to be jump-starting a long-planned transit line to serve the congested jobs magnet powered in great part by Emory and the CDC. Anyone caught in the daily automotive crawl along Clifton Road can see the motivation of providing a new travel alternative there.

Current political status quo requires joining Atlanta to gain any shot at getting the Clifton Corridor transit line underway anytime soon. City voters approved a new sales tax last year that raises money for new transit, and other improvements.

No such new funding source for expansions currently exists in DeKalb.

Emory University President Claire Sterk foreshadowed her institution’s motivations in March during an Editorial Board meeting at the AJC, some three months before the annexation proposal was filed. She mentioned congestion as being among the area’s “unique characteristics” that also include the need for workers to reach jobs and patients to access healthcare. Annexation would let Emory be part of “a very limited window of time” to get transit, Sterk said. “I think we’re at the point right now where we can sit tight until we can get everything done, or do we do what we can right now.”

Her polite assessment sums up the weaknesses in regional development planning that still bedevil this metro area. The Clifton Corridor rail line would travel a route that’s largely in what’s now unincorporated DeKalb County. Yet, there’s no funding stream in place to make it happen – a function of the piecemeal way in which we’ve addressed transportation funding.

Similar sentiments are being voiced about other infrastructure issues, such as roads, police and fire protection and schools that Atlanta and DeKalb are at odds over. The neighborhood-fracturing prospect of future cityhood movements in DeKalb no doubt is a factor as well. There has to be a better way of addressing such matters across jurisdictional boundaries in a way that safeguards the interest of both directly affected parties and the region as a whole. Zero-sum outcomes should be unacceptable in our growing home.

On the transit issue, at least, we believe the Georgia General Assembly should study this challenge carefully as it edges closer to potentially increasing state involvement in transit.

There’s little dispute that better travel options are needed along the Clifton Corridor, and there’s a substantial argument as well that transit expansion should not end there, but continue to MARTA’s existing rail line at Avondale.

Successfully resolving the Clifton Corridor annexation conundrum would give metro Atlanta a playbook for handling such issues in a way that benefits an entire, growing region.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.