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DOT board moves ahead with rail

By Justin Boron and Michael Davis

The Georgia Transportation Board on Thursday reaffirmed its commitment to produce commuter rail service from Lovejoy to Atlanta, despite calls to scrap the more than decade old project and criticism of a plan to fund the line's operation with local taxpayer dollars.

The 7-5 vote came a day after a committee of five board members heard varied points of view on the issue from proponents and critics.

During a meeting of the full board, Dana Lemon, who represents Henry and Clayton counties, proposed a resolution that authorizes the transportation commissioner to execute an agreement obligating Clayton County to pay an annual operating deficit estimated between $4 million and $8 million. The resolution is contingent on the state coming to an agreement with Norfolk Southern for use of the tracks.

Before the motion passed, a separate motion was made to send the resolution back to the Intermodal Committee. But it failed 7-5.

Lemon said she bypassed the committee because an up or down vote had waited long enough.

"We needed to move forward with the commuter rail program," she said.

Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said he was more than pleased with the approval.

"Hallelujah, in a word," he said. "I'm ecstatic.

"I'm delighted that the majority of the board made a conscious decision to move this project forward," he said.

State Rep. Steve Davis, R-McDonough, who has voiced opposition to the line since taking office this year, said he was disappointed.

"It's a sellout to the taxpayers is what it is," he said.

Davis has argued the DOT's studies are flawed and through documents released after he made an open records request, that the $106 million price tag to jump start the rail is actually $115 million.

"Both Bell and Lemon, they don't want to hear what the taxpayers have to say – the ones who are going to pay for it," Davis said. "They just want to do it."

Clayton County Commissioner Wol– Ralph, a supporter of rail but a critic of the plan to apply local taxpayer dollars to an annual deficit, expressed dismay but was moved little by the rail decision.

"Nothing's changed about my position. I continue to support commuter rail. The focus now should be to ensure that that the rail deficit doesn't fall on the homes and businesses of Clayton County taxpayers."

He also said he would like to see a referendum on the issue.

In saying the rail needed to move forward, Lemon also acknowledged there was still some work to do in finding funding alternatives and establishing a steady funding stream for all intermodal transportation.

Bell also said he would continue to pursue other funding mechanisms to alleviate the taxpayers' burden.

Thirteenth District Congressman David Scott, D-Ga., commended the vote as needed progress.

"With today's vote, Georgia is moving forward quickly to provide solid evidence of progress on eliminating congestion and improving air quality for its residents," he said.

Although a resolution was passed against the rail in his city, Hampton Mayor Hugh Lewis vowed to continue to support the proposed Hampton stop along the second leg of the line and said it would become more important as gas prices rise.

"I think people are going to see, with the inflation of gas prices, how important mass transportation is," he said.

Opponents in Hampton, like opponents in Clayton, say the government can't afford to subsidize operating shortfalls. "Frankly, we've got enough government subsidies," said Hampton Councilman Paul Jones.