By Daniel Silliman
The Georgia Department of Transportation is no longer just waiting for Clayton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell to forge a financial solution for commuter rail. Now the department is trying to help, a GDOT spokesman said Friday.
The State Transportation Board voted, late last month, to push for the commuter rail line from Atlanta to Lovejoy, after the project had been stalled for 16 months.
At a late-April meeting, Intermodal Committee Chairman Larry Walker told the board he had visited three major, and successful, commuter rail operations around the country, and saw "no other option, but for us to move forward" with the Atlanta-area system.
"He came back pretty much convinced that we need to get moving on the implementation of commuter rail," said David Spear, GDOT spokesman. "The board has emphatically said to the staff: 'You need to be moving on this. You need to get this going ... Prior to that, we may have been saying, 'OK, we're going to let Chairman Bell and the people he's working with take care of this, and when they get something going, we'll move forward with our part. Chairman Walker said, 'No, you help Chairman Bell work this out.'"
The project -- establishing a commuter train from Atlanta to Lovejoy, along the already-existing 26 miles of track that connects Fulton County and Clayton
County -- stalled in January 2007.
Before that, GDOT was moving forward to get the system running, while Clayton County's Board of Commissioners had agreed to pay for the expected operating budget deficit. The county had signed a "blank check" in 2005, with the private understanding it would not, ultimately, be burdened with the whole cost of operating the train, but the agreement was necessary to just get things underway.
Federal money is slated to pay for the first three years of operation, but that money cannot be spent until GDOT shows the federal agency a balanced, 20-year budget. Bell and others said the county could guarantee the funding for the Lovejoy train, and then work out a funding mechanism to pay for the project during the three-year implementation process, possibly looking to ways of taxing the new development expected to spring up around the line.
In January 2007, two new commissioners, Sonna Singleton and Michael Edmondson, were elected to the Clayton board. Objecting to the risk of a "blank check" and the commitment to the unknown cost of operating the 26-mile train, they joined Commissioner Wole Ralph, and the three successfully moved to back the county out of the deal.
GDOT's work on the line stopped, and some sought to simply kill the commuter rail project, which has been under consideration since the 1990s.
In April 2007, GDOT's then-commissioner Harold Linnenkhol went public with a statement saying he refused to move forward with commuter rail until the operating budget deficit was guaranteed by somebody. To move, he said, would be a dereliction of duty.
In the last 13 months, Bell has worked to galvanize support for commuter rail, traveling from Griffin, Ga., to Cobb County, to Washington D.C., promoting the economic opportunity of the transportation system and working to gather support for a funding mechanism.
The Transportation Planning Board, which Bell chairs, gathered a coalition of commuter rail supporters and took them to Charlotte, N.C., to see the success of the first leg of its commuter rail system, and to raise the fear that Atlanta's position as the economic power of the Southeast might not be so secure.
The TPB and other groups, such as Georgians for the Brain Train, worked to unify rail supporters from all sides of the region and political spectrum, and demonstrate broad public support to elected leaders.
Following a change of leadership at GDOT last October, all the work may have now succeeded in moving commuter rail a significant step forward -- or at least ending the 16-month stall.
"We've still got issues," said Spear. "We've still got all the same issues we had before. We've still got to negotiate a contract for the rolling stock and we have to work out an agreement with Norfolk Southern for the use of the track.
"We have to update our environmental impact document, because it's been so long since we touched that. We've got all these issues, and the grand daddy of them all is that projected operating budget shortfall. But what the board is saying is: 'Solve them.'"
The GDOT board took another step toward commuter rail implementation, Spear said, at the late-April meeting, when it voted to establish an Intermodal Division dedicated to these types of projects, which are currently overseen only by a part-time committee.
Spear said the director of the Intermodal Division will have a full-time job dedicated to non-road transportation projects, and will bring in nationally recognized experience and credibility.
As the search for the director starts, the existing staff has begun to work with Bell and others on funding solutions, and has started looking at the second-leg of the system, from Atlanta north.
"Factually," Spear said, "maybe not a whole lot of things have changed, but the impetus has been ratcheted up to get going."