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Both sides lay out commuter rail arguments

By Justin Boron

Georgia Transportation Board members on Wednesday heard an array of viewpoints on commuter rail, promising to consider each one carefully. But like their past two meetings, they took no action that would push the $106 million investment closer to fruition or failure.

Since July, the fate of the 26-mile line has hung in limbo. Meanwhile, proponents and critics of the Lovejoy-to-Atlanta rail and its funding plan have argued over its effectiveness, the accuracy of cost estimates, and whether Clayton County can and should pay for at least part of the costs. Those arguments were highlighted at the state Intermodal Committee meeting which featured 90 minutes of back-and-forth presentations from 14 speakers on the rail.

David Doss, the chairman of the transportation board, said the stall mostly stems from the lack of a finalized agreement with Norfolk Southern, from which the state would lease the tracks for the rail service.

"There is nothing to vote on specifically at this point," he said. "People are wanting us to vote, but there's really not something on which to vote."

Doss said the major parts of the agreement had been settled. But the negotiations are hung up on a disagreement over who will cover an $8 million infrastructure improvement on part of the line shared by Norfolk Southern and CSX. He said he hoped to have it resolved by the beginning of next year.

Rail proponents say the holdup has allowed dissenters to find new criticisms for the project.

Dana Lemon, a transportation board member that represents Henry and Clayton County, said she was not swayed by Wednesday's arguments. She said she still felt the board should move ahead with project.

"There is something we can do," Lemon said. "We can vote to tell the commissioner to finalize the agreement."

Another hanging point for the commuter rail's realization is an agreement for Clayton County to fund the train's operating deficit, which is estimated to be between $3 and $4 million annually. The county has agreed to pay what the fare box doesn't cover.

But several of the speakers critical of the rail plan called for a referendum.

Clayton County Commissioner Wolé Ralph said he favors commuter rail but is uncomfortable with local tax money being contributed to what he considers a regional transportation mode. He urged the state cover the operating deficit.

"If the state is unwilling to do that, it should allow a referendum to take place," he said.

Meanwhile, Bell told board members he doesn't support a public vote and if one had been necessary, there was ample time in the project's planning stages to legislate it.

"I'm ready to move ahead," he said.

Sen. Valencia Seay, D-Riverdale, who like Ralph supports rail but is critical of its funding plan, has proposed the legislation to create the vote.

"The only thing I'm against is the financial burden being placed on Clayton County taxpayers," she said.

Seay also stressed that the estimated operating deficit would only be accurate if the project is executed perfectly.

Doss said while a referendum would be favorable, it wouldn't hold up the project.

"It would be nice to have. I would love to have it. But that's not going to preclude us from moving forward," he said.

Speakers at the presentation consisted of business leaders, academics, and elected officials.

Rep. Steve Davis, R-McDonough, who outright opposes the rail, tried to strike a blow at the legitimacy of the state's ridership estimates and criticized its cost estimates.

He claimed most of the survey respondents were MARTA riders and were surveyed based on a fee of $1.75 a day.

"It's just common sense," Davis said. "Cost effective measures don't get surveyed with false information."

Jack Hancock, chairman of the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, said the project is a bargain compared to other cities trying to create rail problems. He said a 24-mile rail to Denver is going to cost $702 million, almost seven times as much as the Clayton County line. Hancock also said not building the line, in which $87 million worth of federal funds are invested, would hamstring Georgia's congressional delegation as they argue for future funding.