State delays rail decision

By Justin Boron

State transportation officials on Thursday again postponed their decision on commuter rail at least until after they hear all the pros and cons for the $106 million investment.

Rail advocates criticized the delay, calling it a stalling tactic meant to give opposition to the project more time to gather steam. At the same time, critics of the funding plan for the rail praised the move because they said it would allow time to further illuminate how much the rail's operation will actually cost and who would be paying for it.

Commuter rail, heralded by its advocates as a solution to traffic and a catalyst for economic development, has become a divisive issue fueled by a growing faction of resistance that denounces the project for lack of public involvement and a funding plan its members say is unfair to local taxpayers.

At the meeting, Dana Lemon, who represents Henry and Clayton counties on the state transportation board, unsuccessfully pushed for an up or down vote on the project, which has been officially planned for nearly 10 years and discussed for more than 15.

"We are not being responsible when we stall decisions we have to make," she said.

But Garland Pinholster of Ball Ground, Ga., the state board's Intermodal Committee chairman, insisted on having no vote until after a public forum scheduled for the middle of September. He said the hearing will feature "academic" points of view from seven representatives of each side of the issue.

"I have not heard academic presentations for and against," he said. "I would like to hear those."

Pinholster also said he was not interested in emotional arguments from either side.

"I'm interested in empirical data," he said.

The meeting's adjournment underscored the division on the Intermodal Committee, only passing 3 to 2. The committee is charged with making a recommendation to the entire 13-member board on whether the project should proceed.

Also left open at the meeting is what will become of an agreement between the state and Clayton County that commits local tax dollars to funding the difference between the train's operating costs and the fare box. Clayton County, which also plans to use contributions from its municipalities, wouldn't have to fork out the money until three years after the Lovejoy-to-Atlanta line begins service, tentatively scheduled for fall of 2006. County officials expect their estimated $4 million per year contribution to decrease as the line expands toward Macon and more governments become involved.

County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, who forwarded a signed contract to the state, said local governments have complied with everything the state has asked them to do to keep the project moving forward.

Harold Linnenkohl, the transportation commissioner, said there is still parts of the contract the department doesn't agree with.

Bell called the delay for a public hearing "stalling to further permit disagreement."

Opposing the local funding of the rail's operation, Clayton County Commissioner Wol– Ralph lauded the stay on a vote.

"Clearly the thinking, conscientious members of the Intermodal Committee have taken pause, are listening to the taxpayers of Clayton County, and have heard their stout opposition to carrying the shortfall for the regional line," he said in a news release.

State Rep. Steve Davis, R-McDonough and state Sen. Valencia Seay, D-Riverdale have aligned themselves with Ralph on the issue.

Davis also praised the hold off.

"I think it's a victory and the taxpayers need the extra time," he said.

But U.S. Congressman David Scott, D-Georgia who helped get the project $87 million worth of federal funds, told the board the need for commuter rail is dire.

"Clayton County is a county that needs this," he said. "(It) needs this shot in the arm."