By Daniel Silliman
From Macon to Griffin, to Athens, all along the proposed commuter rail line, officials are beginning to think regionally about a new mode of transportation, and ways to raise the money needed for the line.
At a cocktail hour and dinner Wednesday night, Georgians for the Brain Train brought the stakeholders together to talk about support for the proposed rail line and about possible financial mechanisms to turn that support into funding.
Paul Snyder, spokesman for Georgians for the Brain Train, hailed the meeting as a success, because it brought together 175 business, economic and civic leaders in support of the commuter line.
Earlier this year, the northern leg of the proposed line, from Atlanta to Athens, and the initial southern leg, from Atlanta to Lovejoy or, perhaps, Griffin, were being spoken of as competing projects. Some speculated that money designated for the southern metro commuter rail would be redirected to the northern line, unless funds were found to pay for the expected operating short fall. Snyder said the Wednesday meeting is a major step toward getting people to think about the two projects as one.
"These projects need each other," Snyder said. "The goal was to get people together from every part of the Athens, Atlanta, Macon corridor ... because they need each other."
John Parker, Forest Park city manager, and Mac Collins, former Republican congressman from Jackson, Ga., agreed the meeting at the Atlanta Commerce Club, moved officials to work together, and think as a region about the rail line.
"Everybody is a part of this," Parker said. "We're all under the same hood here, and [the rail line] is a vital link to the economic structure of this area," he added.
Collins said he knew the meeting was a success when he realized how many elected representatives were there to show support. The support of legislators will be crucial, he said, to the construction of a rail line.
"You get enough people interested," Collins said, "and you get a solution to solve the problem, and move forward."
On the southern side of the metro area, the commuter line became a regional issue when Clayton County Commissioners reneged on an agreement to pay any operating shortfall costs.
The initially section of commuter line was expected to cost about $4 million a year, and the county had signed a contract to fund the operational shortfall. However, newly elected commission members said the agreement was an unfair burden on the county. Former board members, who signed the agreement, said the funding was never supposed to actually fall on the county taxpayers, but the contract was meant to get the line construction started while a better, regional solution was determined.
The decision by Clayton County led Georgia Department of Transportation officials to stop their negations with the train company which owns the railroad tracks, and all official movement was halted until a funding source was found, agreed upon and designated.
During the spring and early summer, the future of the commuter rail looked bleak, with some officials saying there wasn't any hope, unless the state or federal government came in and paid for the whole thing.
At that time, Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell began to say that he was a "regional thinker," focusing on "transportation issues," and said he wanted transportation to be his legacy. Bell traveled to Washington D.C., Griffin, and other area governments, to seek support.
Bell talked about two ideas to solve the funding problem. One sought to extend the first phase of the southern line past Lovejoy, where it was initially going to end, down to Griffin. Though that will increase start-up costs from a projected $106 million to $144 million, it will also get more Southern Crescent governments involved in paying for the line.
The other idea Bell urged was establishing a transportation sales tax for businesses near the rail, which would be directly impacted by rail users, and have those businesses pay for train operations.
Today, people at Georgians for the Brain Train avoid calling the southern commuter rail, "the Lovejoy line," saying instead, the first phase needs to run from Athens to Griffin.
Spalding County Commissioners, Griffin City Council members, and Griffin civic groups, are among the most unified and vocal supporters of the commuter rail. More than 3,000 Spalding County residents have signed a petition in support of the line, and Sande Cropsey, Griffin's Main Street program manager, sends out weekly press releases in support of the line.
Bell's second proposal, funding the operation with a special transportation tax district, has also received strong support and is one of the financial mechanisms being considered.
Snyder said he hadn't heard the idea until it was brought up at Wednesday's meeting, but he really liked what he heard.
"I had no thought about that until Chairman Bell brought it up, but I love it, I love it," he said. "It think it's genius."
The main obstacle to the opening of the commuter line is funding.
Some officials believe they need to show regional support so that state and federal officials will take notice, and dedicate money to the project. Steve Cash, executive director of the Henry County Council for Quality Growth, said the goal is just to make elected officials more aware of the need for commuter rail, and to convince them to "start looking outside the box."
"There's an educational and a learning curve for all of us," Cash said, "in these out-of-the-box type situations. But we can't rely on highways for the next 30 years, especially in [Henry County] where there's a tie-up everyday. There's a wreck every day. We have to take some drastic steps, in my opinion."
Others, including Bell and Snyder, are hoping the broad, line-wide support can be translated into financial commitment, through a financial funding mechanism. They're hoping to fund the rail without needing any more money from the state or the U.S. Congress, forging a regional funding solution.
"We know the willingness is there, but there's not a mechanism," Snyder said. "We're asking, what kind of mechanism is going to be available to us, so the municipalities and counties can contribute in an equitable way, to the operating expenses. They're chomping at the bit to figure out how to do this."
Georgians for the Brain Train is considering having another meeting, to bring county and city officials together to consider a tax plan. If all the parties could join in a summit and sign on a plan -- Bell's or someone else's -- that plan could be brought to the state legislature for approval.
Collins is cautious, saying there are a number of things that have to be discussed, and determined, before a regional agreement can be reached.
Parker is more eager, saying the city of Forest Park is poised to participate, and is just waiting to be told "when and where."
The official's summit could happen, Snyder said, as early as this spring.