Rail debate swirls in community

By Justin Boron

Georgia Sen. Valencia Seay, backed by two other local leaders, denounced the commuter rail plan Monday as advocates in Henry and Clayton counties reaffirmed their support for the project and downplayed the emerging faction of resistance to it.

As state transportation officials consider dumping the project altogether, the new criticism from a state senator and a symbolic gesture from Henry County commissioners added fuel to an already divisive debate over whether the project should continue moving forward after more than 15 years in the making.

While Seay met with reporters in Atlanta, the Henry County Board of Commissioners was busy adopting a resolution that backs the Clayton County Commission's pledge to fund the operating costs not met by the train's fare box. If the rail makes its start date scheduled for late 2006, state transportation officials estimate the deficit to be at the most $4.5 million in one year. It could be less, if alternative funding is found.

The move taken in Clayton County two weeks ago was seen as a crucial step toward allaying threats from state transportation officials to kill the $106 million project.

But the Clayton County Commission's action also has alarmed some local leaders and citizens who fear county property taxpayers may bear the brunt for the open-ended financial commitment.

Seay, a Democrat from Riverdale who is the chairwoman of the Clayton County legislative delegation, said she would rather the project be axed entirely than going ahead without local taxpayers being consulted.

Flanked by two other critics of the rail - Clayton County Commissioner Wolé Ralph and state Rep. Steve Davis, R-McDonough - she said she supports the idea of rail as a viable solution to the region's transportation woes, but disagrees with how it will be funded once it runs.

"I believe any such commitment should require the concurrence of taxpayers involved," she said reading from a prepared statement. "In keeping with this belief, I am in the process of researching legislation which will require a referendum before Clayton County taxpayers and any other taxpayers that are involved can be committed to funding regional or state public transportation projects."

State transportation officials are set to meet Thursday when they could decide the final outcome of the 26-mile line from Lovejoy to Atlanta, along with the planned extension to Macon.

As that date has drawn nearer, discussion of the project has grown in volume, with citizens and elected officials speaking out for and against it.

Ralph McDuffie, a Forest Park resident and owner of a realty company, said the county cannot afford to miss out on the rail's opportunity.

"If (the rail) happens, it will help our schools. It will help everything," he said. "It's the only thing for (Atlanta's) Southside that we have going for us."

Through its resolution Monday, the Henry County Commission joined several other governments and organizations in the community that support the rail. Chambers of commerce in Henry and Clayton counties as well as several city governments have championed the project as a lighthouse for the Southern Crescent's future economic vitality.

Although the commission's action does not commit any money to the project, it sends a clear message at a time when many local leaders are eager to keep the rail alive.

"What I think it says is we certainly don't want to stand in the way of it getting to Clayton County," Henry County Commissioner Warren Holder said. "Clayton County is willing to fund it to get it to Lovejoy, and to be quite honest with you, I think it will provide some [benefit] to the people who want to ride the train in Henry County."

But others say they are hesitant to take on the rail's cost before knowing how successful it will be.

"I just, in good conscience, cannot support a resolution I feel like will be a financial hardship to the citizens of that area and potentially that could fall back on the taxpayers of the state," said Henry District II Commissioner Elizabeth "BJ" Mathis, who cast the lone vote of opposition on the commission. The City Council in Hampton, which Mathis represents, also has given a vote opposing the rail.

With a referendum unlikely until after the next legislative session, Seay said if ensuring that the citizens have a direct voice in the dedication of their property taxes means killing the rail, then so be it.

"If that's where it is, that's where it is," she said.

Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, who sparred with Seay over a set of legislative pay raises for local officials, asked why the senator had not proposed a referendum for the rail earlier this year during the General Assembly.

"Too often these things are politically motivated," he said.

Bell also said he believes he has the backing of the community to go ahead with an agreement that obligates Clayton County to pay the operating deficit.

Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer, also chairman of the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority, said he was disappointed in Seay but thought the project would still have the backing it needs at DOT.

Dana Lemon, who represents Clayton and Henry counties on the DOT board, said the amount of dissent in the community has been overstated. She pointed to more than 300 citizen letters to DOT supporting the project and said some criticism always comes forward when projects are close to realization.

"When the train is about to (run) or the road is about to be built, people start paying attention," she said.

But Ralph said contention is surfacing because it has only recently become clear that the residents he represents may have to pay for the rail with an increase in property taxes.

Bell argues that, like the C-TRAN bus system, rail will not require a property tax increase. He said he is exploring other funding opportunities including an added one-cent sales tax, contributions from other counties, and making the rail self-sufficient by adding a restaurant car to it.

Daily Herald staff writer Michael Davis contributed to this story.