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Critics seek to derail commuter rail plan

By Justin Boron

As commuter rail advocates stride toward getting the project closer to fruition, dissent in the community continues to emerge to trip it up.

The appearance of opposition comes as several Clayton County officials are rallying to keep the project on track amid the threat of it being killed altogether. The Georgia Department of Transportation Intermodal Committee is scheduled to meet Aug. 18 when it could make a pivotal recommendation on the rail.

Several Henry County residents, including state Rep. Steve Davis, R-McDonough, have criticized the rail idea, proposing highway expansion instead. The Hampton City Council also has passed a resolution opposing the rail.

The most recent faction to line up against the 26-mile line through the center of Clayton County is a group of neighborhood associations concerned about the impact the rail could have on property taxes.

"We're not so much in opposition to the train system," said Synamon Baldwin, a resident in the panhandle who is organizing several neighborhood associations to speak out on the rail. "What we're concerned about is that we would be taxed to pay for it."

"Raising our taxes to support the rail deficit should not be a consideration and if so, the citizens should address it in a referendum," she said. Baldwin's group also is generating a petition against property taxes going toward the project.

The new criticism has surfaced following what the rail's proponents said was a major step forward for the $106-million investment that county officials see as a beacon of economic revitalization.

At its last business meeting, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners authorized its chairman to work a deal with Georgia DOT that would commit the county to paying operating and maintenance costs for the rail. At their peak, the costs would be around $4 million, said Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer, who is also the chairman of the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority.

The agreement with the state would kick in after the first three years of operation when federal grant funding is phased out. Service is slated to begin in fall of 2006.

Rhodenizer said rail advocates are doing the best to allay the dissent.

"Everybody on the team certainly tries to answer all of their questions about (the rail)," he said.

Rhodenizer also said the rail's impact on property value and economic development would be more than sufficient to pay any operating deficit not covered by the fare box.

In addition to economic development and a heavier tax digest, the rail can deepen the pool for the local option sales tax and Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax collections, said Morrow City Manager John Lampl.

He said franchising fees - like the ones gained through an agreement governments' have with Georgia Power for use of public property - could also go up with construction of more buildings and the need for more power.

The Morrow City Council recently authorized the city's mayor to develop an agreement with the county commission to contribute to the rail's operating deficit. The city has developed a Liveable Centers Initiative including mixed use development where the rail would stop.

Lampl said the city estimated it would have to pay about $90,000 of the share.

But that, he said, would easily be made up.

Commissioner Wolé Ralph, who voted against the county's agreement despite his support of the rail idea, has said he is skeptical the cities and county can make up the difference without burdening taxpayers.

A letter to homeowners from Baldwin lists some of the same concerns and points that Ralph used to justify his opposition.

é Commuter rail is a regional transportation system, and the county is the only county being asked to pay, despite state projections that there will be more residents from surrounding counties riding this train than Clayton County residents.

é Property taxes will be forced to rise to keep pace with the commuter rail deficit.

é This train is designed to relieve traffic congestion on state and federal roads and not county roads.

é Clayton County property tax dollars should be used to fund already deficient direct services to Clayton County residents like police, code enforcement, and not regional issues.

é If county taxpayers are going to fund a regional transportation system then it should be a decision that residents make through a referendum.