By Justin Boron
The commuter rail still has a chance, at least until August.
A state transportation committee overseeing the planned Lovejoy to Atlanta rail agreed Wednesday to hold off on a recommendation on whether to kill the $106 million investment.
The Georgia Department of Transportation Intermodal Committee was to take pivotal action on the rail project but delayed its decision after Clayton County officials asked for more time.
The committee, which would forward its decision to the state transportation board, is scheduled to meet again Aug. 17.
Clayton County officials hope by then that the Board of Commissioners will have passed a resolution answering one of the most uncertain questions currently holding back the project.
Which is, once federal funds dry up after the first three years, who will pay the red ink operating and maintenance costs that the rail's fare box doesn't cover?
Transportation officials estimate the amount to be between $3 million and $4 million annually based on ridership projections. Estimates to operate an extension, from Lovejoy to Griffin that would come online at a later date, through the city of Hampton come in at about $540,000.
Clayton County Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer, who also sits as chairman of the state's Rail Passenger Authority, said he had confidence that the commission would approve a measure that obligates the county to pay the shortfall in running the rail at its next meeting .
"I have no reason to believe they wouldn't," he said.
Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell also said he would back the promise.
But Garland Pinholster, chairman of the Intermodal committee, warned Bell of the political risks of that kind of financial commitment.
"Please be sure that your community understands that it is an open-ended and long-term agreement," he said.
That's just what some officials in Hampton are worried about. It's an issue that has split the city council.
Last week, the city approved a resolution of non-support for the rail in a split vote after bitter discussion. Four council members have questioned the proposal, while two members and the mayor have supported it. Henry County commissioners, some leery of entering the debate, were asked by state Rep. Steve Davis, R-McDonough, a rail opponent, to declare it didn't have the money to supplement the rail's operation.
They have yet to do so.
When asked by Pinholster if he acknowledged that taxpayers could be bearing the brunt, Bell said he would work with legislators to mitigate any burden the rail would have on Clayton County citizens.
Bell feels he could eventually make the rail self-sufficient by adding dining cars onto it.
"I'd like to see the whole thing called the Heritage Trail," he said.
Doubts surrounding the project's realization came up after transportation officials in February said no cars would be purchased until a firm agreement on who would cover operating costs had been reached.
Previously in a letter to the governor, the Clayton County Commission and the county's cities pledged to pay the extra money. Last month, four Henry County mayors signed a proclamation of support for the rail, but stopped short of committing money.
The new proposed commitment by Rhodenizer would be much stronger. Rhodenizer also said he would later seek an agreement with Clayton County's cities to split up the cost. He said it would likely be broken down by population.
Pinholster said the move was one of the two things that needed to happen to keep the rail alive.
The other, he said, would be resolving an infrastructure conflict between CSX and Norfolk Southern, who the state is negotiating with, to lease track space.
While two of the Clayton commissioners are promoting the rail, at least one of the other three votes needed to make the promise isn't sure about the open-ended financial commitment.
"It's a real issue," said Commissioner Wole Ralph from a conference in Hawaii. "Clayton County has a number of financial considerations to make for its future."
Problems with its Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax program, bonds on the Gateway Village project, and others, he said, all need to be looked at collectively.
Clayton County and transportation officials are optimistic about preserving rail plans if only for what is at stake if it fails.
Rhodenizer said if plans for the rail fall through, it would be a long time before Clayton County would have another chance.
Much of the federal money for the program would likely be given back, said Emory Brock, the economic development director of Clayton County.
Charlotte, N.C. and Nashville, Tenn. are two places anxious to seize on those funds, he said.
Also at stake are much of the redevelopment plans for Clayton County because they include the rail, Rhodenizer said.
Dana Lemon, a state transportation board member for Clayton and Henry County, said changes in leadership and changes in plans are among the frustrations of completing such a long-range project.
But she still backed it, despite doubts over where the rail's operating deficit would be made up, for its importance to the entire Southern Crescent region.
"(Clayton County and city officials) don't have to do anything to convince me," Lemon said.
Daily Herald staff writer Michael Davis contributed to this article.