Funds for rail intact

By Justin Boron

Amid the squalor of the state budget, sometimes there is victory in keeping the status quo.

Funding for the commuter rail has been maintained in recent budget hearings at the General Assembly, keeping the optimism of planners high for the future of commuter rail in the south metro area.

The $1 million for the commuter rail set aside in the 2005 budget is still intact, said Doug Alexander, the rail program manager for the Georgia Department of Transportation.

On top of that, the Georgia Rail Authority is looking at only a 3 percent cut in the money it has earmarked in the 2006 budget.

Keeping the money where it lies will allow the project to continue moving forward toward its start date in the fall of 2006, said Clayton County Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer.

Rhodenizer has worked closely on the commuter rail with state and federal officials and said with the budget question all but behind them, the main hurdle the project faces now is its negotiations with Norfolk Southern, the owner of the tracks the commuter rail will use.

The lingering question in the talks is over operation, he said.

"Do they want to operate it?" he asked.

While project managers say service from Lovejoy is still a go, the future extension to Griffin may be a different story.

A request for capital funds needed to begin the Griffin project were denied, Alexander said.

But Rhodenizer wasn't too concerned, blaming the tight budget.

He said once the current rail service is implemented, more funding will be made available.

"It shouldn't affect the project," he said.

Alexander said it was typical of the legislature.

"It was our first try," he said.

State funds are a crucial part of the local match of federal funding and the extension's plausibility will depend greatly on the local match of federal funds, which are only available for the first three years of the project.

The federal government will not release the funds until it has assurance that the local funds will be available once the first three years expire.

In Clayton County, the county government and the municipalities were able to collaborate and provide a large part of the local match.

But the Henry County is hesitant about putting up the match because so many of its municipalities would not have direct access to rail, said Henry County Commissioner B.J. Mathis.

Hampton, which Mathis represents, would be the only city with a station in the county already challenged by inefficient infrastructure.

Mathis said it would cost the county more than $5 million to get on board the rail project.

"There is absolutely no way that we can find that kind of money," she said.

If the extra money was available, Mathis said she would rather spend the money on roadway improvements.

In spite of scant support for rail from the Henry County commission, citizens in McDonough may still have access via a shuttle, said McDonough Mayor Richard Craig.

"It would be a good possibility," he said.