Lovejoy rail may be on chopping block

By Justin Boron

Clayton County Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer said he has asked a transportation department committee to hold on deciding whether it thinks a $106 million commuter rail project from Lovejoy to Atlanta should be axed.

At its July 20 meeting, the Georgia Department of Transportation's Intermodal Committee is scheduled to recommend to the DOT Board whether it should continue pursuing the line, said Rhodenizer who is the chairman of the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority.

The meeting is an important one, he said, because it could be the first step toward killing the project that is more than a decade old. At the same time, he said it also could quell doubts from public officials and citizens over the rail's realization.

"It could be for it," Rhodenizer said. "Or for it with stipulations."

The decision would come as the state is finalizing its agreement with Norfolk Southern to lease track space.

Locally, where several redevelopment projects include or are hinged on the rail, some city leaders have been hesitant to commit dollars without knowing exactly how much it would cost to operate the trains.

Rhodenizer said operating costs have been estimated at $4 million annually.

Forest Park Mayor Chuck Hall said the cities would be more inclined to solidify their financial commitments if they knew what the maximum amount each city would be paying for the rail's operation. He has also proposed extending the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax initiative for the purpose of running the train.

Morrow City Manager John Lampl said it was prepared to set aside money as it has promised in the past.

Rhodenizer said he foresees the Board of Commissioners passing a resolution to commit financially to operating the entire rail. Later, he said it would work out an agreement to include the cities.

He also said plans are continuing forward until the intermodal committee meeting.

"Who knows what these boards are going to do?" he asked.

But if the state transportation board does back away from the project, rail in Clayton County would likely be forever dead because he said $40 to $50 million in federal money currently dedicated to the project would have to be returned.

Then, Rhodenizer said any other city with rail transit plans could apply for it.

"Nashville and Charlotte are just waiting to get their hands on it," he said.