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Bell proposing commuter rail funding solution

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Returning to a promise to find a way to pay for commuter rail, Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell is proposing a funding mechanism and is being backed by the board of commissioners.

Bell will now take his plan to state legislators, he said Thursday, in hopes it will be adopted and will be the creative solution needed to make commuter rail a reality in the Southern Crescent.

The proposed plan calls for a multi-jurisdictional tax district, which would extend along the rail line and only tax the new development created by the rail line. Currently, a tax district cannot extend beyond the county's borders. If the legislature changes that and goes along with Bell's idea, multiple counties and cities could join the tax district, participating in the regional development and sharing the financial burden.

"I believe that potentially, that this mechanism, even absent the fare box, this mechanism could one day, 20 to 30 years from now, could totally fund the train ... It's a creative way of doing it, rather than just directly going to the taxpayers, as opposed to it coming from the county coffers or from county taxpayers," Bell said.

The move comes a year after the county commission backed out of an agreement to take responsibility for funding commuter rail. Bell, with the approval of the board, signed an agreement in 2005, saying the county would cover the projected $4-6 million operating budget shortfall for a commuter rail running from Atlanta to Lovejoy.

The agreement was signed in an attempt, commissioners later said, to get the rail project underway by assuring the Georgia Department of Transportation that money would be available when needed. GDOT, with the agreement from Clayton County on file, moved forward with needed negotiations with the company which owns the tracks and equipment and a company that could manage the line. In 2007, however, newly elected commissioners thought the agreement would saddle Clayton County taxpayers with the entire $4-6 million burden, and voted to renege on the agreement.

Since then, the commuter rail project has been in limbo and GDOT has said it cannot move forward until funds are identified.

Bell -- repeating that he never intended to have Clayton taxpayers pay for commuter rail -- said he believes he's identified a regional solution for the transportation funding. Now that the board has signed on in support, unanimously passing a resolution on Tuesday, Bell will "move judiciously to get it presented to the general assembly and work to get it passed," he said.

At GDOT, however, Bell's bill is only one of "a lot of bills floating through the legislature," according to spokesman Crystal Paulk-Buchanan. With a new commissioner and a looming transportation funding crisis, the department is assessing its finances and is not currently looking at ways to fund specific projects, like the commuter rail.

"For some people," Paulk-Buchanan said, "it will feel like we're taking three steps backward and no steps forward, but it's an administrative change and we hope that, when we're done, it will make things like [commuter rail] move forward."

At Georgians for the Brain Train, Paul Snyder said he likes Bell's tax plan, but believes it will take more than one creative solution to fund commuter rail.

"I don't think the funding mechanism should or can come from one place," Snyder said. "I think it's a dialogue that needs to involve an inordinately high number of officials and organizations, and that's what makes it so difficult ... but, collectively, I think we can get it done."

Georgians for the Brain Train has been focusing efforts on getting commuter rail cooperation across multiple jurisdictions and has also been working on possible funding mechanisms for the project. This spring, Snyder said, the organization hopes to hold a summit for officials along the line from Athens, in the north, through the metro Atlanta area and down to Macon.

"There are a lot of moving parts, when you talk about funding," Snyder said, but "with a funding mechanism that would allow these entities, municipalities and counties to participate, and with some support from the state, I think we can get it done."