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Rail backers pushing
transportation funding bill

By Dave Williams

dave.williams@graypub.com

ATLANTA - Supporters of stepped-up state funding for mass transit aren't taking their cause for granted, even though the General Assembly appears close to passing legislation they've backed for years.

Representatives of transit advocacy and environmental groups Monday called on legislative leaders to make sure that any transportation funding measure enacted this year includes money for bus and rail service, giving commuters a viable alternative to their cars.

"In an era of $4-a-gallon gasoline, Georgia is still waiting on a project that's been on the books for more than two decades," said Paul Snyder of Georgians for the Brain Train, a group supporting planned commuter rail lines linking Atlanta with Athens and Lovejoy. He spoke during a news conference outside the Capitol.

For several years, the Georgia Department of Transportation has had a federal commitment for more than $90 million of the $107 million needed to build the Lovejoy line.

At one point, project planners also had lined up an agreement with the Clayton County Commission to cover the Lovejoy line's operating shortfalls after its first three years in service, estimated at $4 million per year.

But the project has been in limbo for more than a year, since a newly elected commission rescinded that local commitment.

Despite the setback, the Lovejoy line is further along than the Atlanta-to-Athens route via Gwinnett and Barrow counties, which doesn't have any identified sources of funding.

Rail supporters are optimistic that transportation funding legislation now before the General Assembly will finally start the money flowing for both projects.

Both legislative chambers have been working on constitutional amendments that would ask voters to raise sales taxes to boost funding for needed highway and transit projects.

A version of the legislation the Senate passed last month called for dedicating 10 percent of the additional tax revenue to transit. Those funds would be allocated statewide.

But the House Transportation Committee scrapped that provision last week in favor of a proposal to allow voters to decide by region whether to increase sales taxes by 1 percent for transportation improvements.

While the House measure wouldn't guarantee any specific percentage of tax revenue for transit, it would allow local elected officials in each region to put transit projects on their tax referendum, if they choose to do so.

"We are confident that regions know they need public transit," said Rob Thompson, advocate for the Georgia Public Interest Research Group. "If given the option, they will use that money to fund public transit."

The House legislation could reach the floor as early as this week. Because it's a constitutional amendment, it will require a two-thirds majority vote to pass.