Rail decision possible, but not promised

By Justin Boron

Today could be judgment day for the commuter rail.

The Georgia Department of Transportation Intermodal Committee is set to meet this morning when it may make a final recommendation on what direction the more than 15-year-old commuter rail project will take.

But that isn't guaranteed.

"I don't have assurance that they'll even bring it up," said Clayton County Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer, who also chairs the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority.

The intermodal agenda doesn't specify any action items, only listing "intermodal discussion."

But Clayton County officials have anticipated a decision since last month when the committee put off a recommendation that could have either propelled the project closer to making its 2006 start date or derailed it altogether.

The postponement set off public relations scrambles on either front of the debate over how the project's operating and maintenance costs should be covered and whether rail should come through the county at all.

Since last month's meeting, several citizens and local leaders have come forward to criticize a plan for Clayton County to pay an operating deficit estimated at around $4 million when grant funding runs out after the rail's first three years. The financial commitment from Clayton County is seen as a pivotal step in allaying threats to end the $106 million, state and federally funded project.

Rhodenizer said Wednesday the agreement had been signed and delivered and he thought the commission had done everything in its power to keep rail alive.

Thirteenth District Congressman David Scott, who helped get the $87 million of federal money for the project, also said he is confident the rail would succeed.

"I believe strongly that it will be approved.

"You've got to make courageous decisions," Scott said. "This is our time."

Clayton County Commissioner Wolé Ralph, who dissented in the decision to fund the rail's operating deficit, said the commission didn't take enough feedback from local taxpayers on the issue.

"Bottom line no other county across the country has funded regional transportation through property taxes," he said.

Earlier in the week, he backed state Sen. Valencia Seay, D-Riverdale at a press conference where she proposed a referendum on whether local money should go toward a regional transportation mode.

State Rep. Darryl Jordan, D-Riverdale also has come forward to criticize the funding plan for the rail.

"Why should the people of Clayton County have to pay higher taxes for the benefit of others that would be using the commuter rail? This project should be financed as a regional or a state project. We should not have to bite this bullet alone," he said in an e-mail.

But other officials in Clayton County argue that taxes will not have to be increased. They say the increase value of property and generation of economic development would more than pay for the deficit.

Seay, Ralph, and Rep. Steve Davis, R-McDonough also have said that not enough information has been disclosed for citizens to make a decision.

Davis recently fought for a copy of an agreement between Norfolk Southern and the state for the rail. He took the fight to the attorney general, who ruled in his favor.

"All along, I've been saying we don't have the information and all along, they've been saying 'we can't give it to you - it's confidential' and it turns out it's not confidential. It was a stall technique," he said.

Meanwhile, rail proponents have reaffirmed their support. Tuesday the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce adopted a resolution encouraging state transportation officials to keep the rail alive for the sake of its impact on traffic congestion and economic development. The resolution followed another symbolic gesture of support by the Henry County Board of Commissioners.

Scott said not only is future economic development riding on the rail but also future of alternative transportation in the region.

"The whole nation is looking at this project ... if it does not go through it would be a tremendous loss," he said.

Scott said local governments across the nation contribute to mass transportation systems and in this case, locals would just be putting up their fair share after the state and federal government contributed.

"The money you're asking locals to give pays for jobs," he said.

Daily Herald staff writer Michael Davis contributed to this article.