State committee to hear rail debate

By Justin Boron

State transportation officials today will try to sort through the facts presented by either side of the divisive commuter rail debate, attempting to garner sufficient information to make a final decision on whether the state should continue pursuing the $106-million investment.

The Georgia Department of Transportation Intermodal Committee is scheduled to hear fact-based arguments in Atlanta from 14 speakers, most of whom are split on the issue in general. Some, however, who have been characterized as opponents, say they are not against Lovejoy-to-Atlanta rail idea, just the plan to use local taxpayer dollars to fund an operating deficit.

Since the Clayton County Board of Commissioners decided to move forward on an agreement to pay what the commuter rail's fare box doesn't cover, a group has emerged to demand a referendum before local funds are dedicated to the project.

Another faction in Henry County has opposed the rail in general even though the county commission there passed a resolution advocating the project.

Although the Intermodal Committee has postponed a decision since the middle of July, no vote is expected on the rail issue, according to a news release from the communications office of the department.

"Inasmuch as the Georgia DOT does not yet have a proposed contract with the Norfolk Southern Corp. for use of that firm's track, on which the line would be operated - and so that board members will have time to consider the information presented at (today's) meeting - neither the Intermodal Committee, nor the full board is scheduled to vote on the commuter rail issue," the release says.

It also says there will be not be time for any speakers beyond the one's already scheduled, but people attending are encouraged to submit comments.

Several Clayton and Henry County officials are expected to speak on the benefits of the commuter rail, including Ed Clark, president of the Atlanta Motor Speedway, Jack Hancock, the chairman of the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce, Thomas K. Hardin, the president of Clayton State University, and Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell.

Clayton County Commissioner Wolé Ralph and Sen. Valencia Seay, D-Riverdale, said they are scheduled to speak against the funding plan but not against the rail concept in general.

Ralph, who is one of the scheduled speakers, previewed his argument against the rail's funding plan Tuesday evening at a town hall meeting.

He criticized rail planners for failing to conduct an economic feasibility study that would illustrate how Clayton County plans to generate the revenue needed to pay train's annual operating deficit, which is estimated to be $4.5 million five years from now.

"There needs to be a whole lot more information given for this rail line," he said.

Using a luxury car as an example, Ralph also defended his simultaneous advocacy for the commuter rail idea and his criticism for its funding plan.

"I want a Mercedes-Benz. I really want one. I like the Benz. If you ask me if I can afford the Benz, I'll say no," he said. "When I can afford the Benz, I'll buy one."

Organizers for the meeting had hoped to feature a debate between Ralph and Bell.

But Bell said earlier in the day he had not received an invitation and did not have plans to attend.