Lawmaker wants answers on commuter rail

By Michael Davis

State transportation officials are close to a preliminary agreement with a railroad company to operate a commuter rail service from Atlanta to Lovejoy.

The board of the state Department of Transportation, which will meet next week, is expected to take up a proposal to allow Norfolk Southern Corp., which owns the tracks, to either operate the service or contract it out. Officials plan to extend the line to Griffin through the city of Hampton in a second phase.

The agreement is expected to spell out who will be responsible for operation, what the fare will be, how the tracks and grade crossings will be upgraded and other improvements, said DOT board member Dana Lemon, who represents the 13th Congressional district on the board.

"Right now it's in the lawyers hands," she said.

But a vocal critic of the proposed commuter rail, state Rep. Steve Davis, R-McDonough, is getting louder in his demands for knowledge of the negotiations to begin the service.

Davis, a freshman in the state Legislature, wants to know what the Georgia Department of Transportation has agreed to and what it's going to cost before the DOT votes.

Davis said he's been told that because of a confidentiality agreement, the information is being withheld. Last week, he filed an open records request for the information with DOT Commissioner Harold Linnenkohl.

"I want to know what the negotiated deal is and want to know what they're hiding and why," Davis said Monday.

As the plan has not gone before the board, the DOT has yet to formalize an agreement.

"At the last board meeting, we asked for them to come back with something that would be ready for signing," Lemon said, adding that continued negotiations were expected, even after next week's meeting.

"Certainly we want our board to have a chance to review it and make comments," said DOT spokesman Bert Brantley. He said after that meeting, the proposed agreement would likely be made public, but that it might not be a final draft.

Brantley said Linnenkohl was out of town Monday, and he did not know if he'd seen Davis' request.

The DOT has been in negotiations for more than a year with Norfolk Southern over the use of the tracks from Atlanta to Lovejoy, which are still in use for commercial freight transportation.

Expected to be operational by late 2006, the rail line would snake through Clayton County through the cities of Forest Park, Morrow, Jonesboro and Lovejoy. The rail would also have stops in East Point and at a multi-modal station in Atlanta.

Lemon said the rail is part of an overall congestion mitigation and air-quality improvement initiative.

"This one specifically is going to be addressing some of the transportation problems along the Tara Boulevard corridor," she said.

A proposal to extend the line to Griffin through the west-Henry city of Hampton has run into criticism from Davis and others who say the county can't afford to contribute to its operations.

Monday, District II Commissioner Elizabeth "BJ" Mathis said the rail would better serve Henry if it were along Interstate 75, which bisects the county. Henry business leaders, however, have strongly supported the current proposal.