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City, county officials coming to rail 'summit'

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

There are about 50 mayors, county commissioners, city managers and other officials planning to go to Hampton for a transit summit, hosted by Georgians for the Brain Train.

They are set to receive an update on commuter rail, a proposed pilot project from Atlanta to Griffin, and conduct "very candid discussions" about their roles in regional transportation.

"This is very 'nuts and bolts,'" said Paul Snyder, a consultant with A. Brown-Olmstead,who is working with Georgians for the Brain Train. "This is not a rally, and it's not a fund-raising event ... The purpose is to generate very candid discussions about how they might contribute to the project."

The summit will be held at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Thursday, Sept. 25. Commissioners are expected from Clayton, Henry, Spalding, Fulton, DeKalb, Barrow and Bibb counties, as well mayors, city council members and managers from Atlanta, Athens, Macon, Hampton, Forest Park, East Point, Barrow, Winder, Barnesville, Jonesboro and Forsyth.

"The RSVP list is looking really good," Snyder said.

The attendees will hear an update on current projects, as well as a presentation on the differences between modes of rail, a presentation on ways to finance operations and maintenance, and a presentation on transit-oriented development. The second half of the summit will be "break-out sessions," restricted to officials and staff and established to foster the discussions about coming together in support of rail transit.

The first leg of a planned commuter rail has had designated funding from the federal government for years, but the project has gotten lost at the state and local levels. There's a projected operating budget shortfall, which would probably be a problem three years after the trains started running, and no one's quite sure who should, or can, afford to take on that cost.

Some transit systems succeed because one governing body, a state or a city, owns and operates everything. Transit planners and supporters in metro Atlanta have said this area needs something regional, instead, to deal with transportation comprehensively, with all the affected parties involved.

"I think if we're going to see implementation on a wider scale, the cities and counties are going to have to have a role," Snyder said. "The cities and counties are going to have to take a very active role in partnership with the state and federal governments."

Snyder and the folks at the Georgians for the Brain Train hope the summit on Thursday will be a step toward cooperation and maybe some consensus. At the very least, the summit will get "the right people talking together," according to Snyder.

A similar summit was held last November at the Atlanta Commerce Club, when the Georgians for the Brain Train held a dinner for 175 business, economic and civic leaders. At the time, the state seemed to be backing away from any involvement in commuter rail funding, and the Brain Train people were trying to solidify some support, erase some imagined divisions, and talk about some creative funding mechanisms.

The situation is different this year, as the Georgia Department of Transportation and Gov. Sonny Perdue are pushing forward on the first stretch of commuter rail, but there's still a need for "regional thinking" in the process, according to Snyder.

"What we would like to do," Snyder said, "is come up with some sort of resolution that would be appropriate to share with GDOT and the governor and everybody, something that says: 'We are willing to come to the table and contribute something. We don't know how, exactly, we don't know how much, exactly, but we want to be productive partners.'"