By Justin Boron
It could be a mano a mano over the commuter rail.
As part of a town hall meeting, Synamon Baldwin, the organizer for a coalition of neighborhood associations in Clayton County, has invited County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell and Commissioner Wolé Ralph to a debate on the issue.
The two are at odds over whether the county should fund the planned train's operating deficit estimated to be $4.5 million once grant funding dries up in about 5 years.
The meeting would come one day before state transportation officials will hear arguments on either side of the issue. It is scheduled to take place 7 p.m. Tuesday at the National Archives Southeast Region facility in Morrow.
But the showdown may not happen.
Baldwin said she sent an invitation letter to Bell and Ralph.
While Ralph indicated he is open to some sort of public discussion or debate of the issue, Bell said the letter has yet to come across his desk.
Ralph said he would be there regardless.
But he also said he would like to hear more explanation from Bell.
"The property taxpayers are not willing to take a chance on paying an operating deficit based on imaginary tourism and hopes for federal funding. I look forward to hearing a more substantive solution," Ralph said.
Bell said that he does not want the burden of the operating deficit to fall on taxpayers and would be pursuing alternative forms of funding.
He also has proposed using the train service to create a "Heritage Trail." Bell said the trail would foster a wide range of tourism opportunities from Civil Rights to the Civil War. It would be marketed to conventioneers in Atlanta.
Opposition to the rail's funding plan emerged after the county commission agreed in July to work a deal with the Georgia Department of Transportation to pay operating and maintenance costs. Ralph, a proponent of the rail concept but not the funding plan, dissented in the vote.
Ralph has advocated letting the public decide through a direct vote whether the county should fund the project.
State Sen. Valencia Seay, who also says she supports the rail concept but criticizes the funding plan, has proposed a bill for the state legislative session beginning in January next year that would require the public vote.
Bell said he doesn't think a referendum is necessary because he already had an implied mandate through election.
"The people elected officials on this notion," he said. "And that to me is a referendum to do it."
He also called those who are fighting the issue of how the rail is funded politically motivated and "short-sighted."
"It's political, and I don't think the taxpayers deserve it," he said.
The town hall meeting also will allow the neighborhood group to add to its list of 2,000 letters, Baldwin said, it plans to forward to the Georgia Department of Transportation Intermodal Committee.
She said the letters' signatories don't oppose the rail, just the plan to apply local funds to the project.
"We would be happy to see the train, especially if does all the magnificent things that it's supposed to do," she said.