By Justin Boron
Commuter rail got a boost Tuesday night intended to satisfy calls at the state level for a concrete, financial contribution from Clayton County governments.
Faced with the threat that the Georgia Department of Transportation could kill the $106 million investment, the Board of Commissioners authorized its chairman to work a deal that would obligate the county to pay maintenance and operating costs not covered by the rail's fares for the next 20 to 30 years.
The DOT Intermodal Committee is scheduled to meet later this month when it could make a final decision on whether the rail should go forward.
Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer, who chairs the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority, thanked the board for authorizing a deal that would kick in once federal grant funding dried up three years into the rail's operation.
"This sends a clear message to the Southern Crescent area that Clayton County is aggressive," he said.
Once the agreement is completely hashed out with the state, Rhodenizer said the cities along the 26-mile line will likely contribute to the operating deficit.
Morrow City Council recently approved a resolution authorizing its contribution at its most recent council meeting.
U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta, who represents most of Clayton County, said the vote was a huge step forward for the project, which is funded by $87 million in federal funds.
The more the rail project progresses, he said, the better case he can make in Washington, D.C. to add additional federal funds to the project.
The decision came with some debate over whether property taxpayers in Clayton County should pay for a regional transportation mode.
In a letter to the his fellow board members, Commissioner Wolé Ralph said he supported the overall objective of the rail, but the deal was too open-ended and could potentially leave residents with tax increases to cover the rail's deficit.
"I don't think anybody should agree to something like that," he said. "At the end of the day, the responsible entity here paying the deficit is the Clayton County taxpayers."
Jonesboro City Council member Rick Yonce also came before the commission to denounce the rail and say his city would not likely have the cash to pony up for operating costs or a planned parking deck.
"I am concerned that not only are you going to obligate the citizens of the county, you're going to obligate the citizens of the cities involved," he said. "In Jonesboro, we're not going to have our share to put up."
Reached at home, Jonesboro Mayor Joy Day said Yonce was not speaking for the city and she believes it will have the money to contribute.
Commissioner Virginia Gray said the same nay-sayers were wrong about C-TRAN bus system.
"C-TRAN has broken all records in expectations of ridership," she said.
Rhodenizer said the county could have to pay as little as $31,000 in the first year after the federal money ends. At the most, he said it would be about $4 million two or three years after the grant money stops.
Commissioner Charley Griswell said with some projects, there is always going to be some uncertainty.
"Being a business person, you always have to take gambles," he said. "Why should we miss that opportunity right now?"
Marketing and economic development may also reduce the burden on Clayton County taxpayers as more jurisdictions get involved, several elected officials said.
Scott said the rail could utilize existing economic opportunities like the Atlanta Motor Speedway located near the Lovejoy stop to build a stronger funding base.
"All we have to do is roll up our sleeves and sell the train," he said.