Davis won't pay for rail information

By Michael Davis

A state representative's request for information on the proposed commuter rail from Atlanta to Lovejoy could cost him big bucks, the Georgia Department of Transportation said.

A request by state Rep. Steve Davis, R-McDonough, filed with the DOT seeking information on the negotiations between the department and railroad company Norfolk Southern Corp. for the use of the tracks and upgrades for commuter passenger trains could cost him up to $1,500, depending on how much he actually wanted, an attorney for the department said.

"Typically charges are based on what is actually copied and administrative time," said Sandra Burgess, the department's director of legal services. "Because his request is so broad, it's on the high side," she said.

Davis, a vocal critic of the rail proposal, which could come before the DOT board next week for a decision, has questioned the department's ridership and cost estimates, and called the project a "boondoggle."

"It's unprecedented that they would ever charge an elected official for information pertaining to his job in the House of Representatives and as a member of the (House) transportation committee," Davis said. "They have a responsibility to provide me with information so I can make policy decisions."

The DOT said some portions of negotiations with Norfolk Southern contain information that falls under the category of trade secrets, which are protected by a confidentiality agreement with the agency.

The DOT's attorney said that if Davis' request for information were more narrow, the cost may not be nearly as high.

"We would certainly, as with any other citizen or representative or newspaper, we would work with you to get the information you requested," Burgess said.

Davis thinks the department may be withholding information that the project could cost more than initially expected, and that some of the increase would be born by local taxpayers.

"It's an unfunded mandate back to the local governments and the local governments are going to have to raise property taxes to pay for it," Davis said.

Earlier this week, a DOT board member said the agreement expected to be taken up next week at the board's May meeting will likely be only a preliminary proposal, subject to future negotiations.

Governments in Clayton County and its cities have already agreed in principle to shore up any operating expenses beyond a federal start-up grant, which is expected to run out about three years after the service begins. From there on, operating costs would be paid for with a combination of fare box collections and local subsidies.

In 2009, the operating costs beyond fare box collections is expected to tap Clayton and its cities for about $300,000, said DOT spokesman Bert Brantley. In 2010, it would be $3.8 million and in 2011 and beyond, roughly $4 million per year.

The DOT has said operations along the much shorter Lovejoy to Griffin leg would cost significantly less.

The commuter rail, supported by the business community in Henry and Spalding counties, and governments in Clayton County along the first leg from Atlanta to Lovejoy, would begin service to Lovejoy by September of next year if all goes according to DOT plans. The agency has been in negotiations with the railroad for more than a year over the use of the tracks, which still carry freight.

"Based on the information we have from DOT and others, we support the project not only as it comes through Clayton County, but on through Henry and Spalding and hopefully down to Macon," said Greg Hammonds, chairman of the board of directors of the Henry County Chamber of Commerce. "We feel like it's a viable alternative to part of our traffic problems. It would not be the only answer but it certainly would help out," he said.

DOT officials say Norfolk would either operate the service itself or contract it out to a third party.

The program however, has run into criticism from Davis and others, who say Henry may not get much bang for its buck if it contributes to the rail's operations. District II Commissioner Elizabeth "BJ" Mathis, suggested Monday during a meeting with regional planning officials, that the rail would better serve Henry County if it followed Interstate 75. "We need to do it right and not just piecemeal it," she said.