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Cities, counties coming together on rail line

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

City and county officials from all along the proposed commuter rail line didn't end the "Brain Train" summit with the formation of a permanent group, or the signing of a joint statement, but organizers said they are on the way there.

"This is the first step in that direction," said Paul Snyder, the consultant for Georgians for the Brain Train, who organized the summit in Hampton Thursday.

"I'm very optimistic that we'll get something signed and soon," Snyder said. "I'm confident they will come to some kind of resolution -- an historic, unified step they could take."

A commuter rail line connecting Macon, Atlanta and Athens has been under consideration for decades, with federal funding earmarked for the start-up of the first leg through Clayton County. The project has stalled and delayed, though, in part because no government has been willing to take on operating costs alone, and the state, struggling to fund planned transportation projects, can't move forward with commuter rail until some funding mechanism is in place.

Georgians for the Brain Train began planning a summit of city and county officials more than a year ago, when it looked like the state government was going to let the rail plans die. There was an idea, at Georgians for the Brain Train, that city and county officials could band together into a regional authority and raise the money to operate the train.

Now that the governor, along with the Georgia Department of Transportation, are actively working on the commuter rail project, Snyder and others at the summit said it's still important to get the city and county leaders unified and moving together.

"Unfortunately, the feds and the state just aren't going to dole out the funds, like they have in the past," said Betty Willis, a vice president for Government and Community Affairs at Emory University. "We're going to have to come up with clever and innovative things, thinking outside the box ... There are a number of ways you can cobble together funding sources."

Willis thinks that in addition to a regional special local option sales tax for transportation, which was looked at by legislators last session, the cities, counties and interested parties could come up with other funding options. Willis said tax allocation districts, public-private partnerships and other financial ideas could be used to get commuter rail running in Georgia.

John Lampl, Morrow city manager, said the cities have to be willing to invest in transportation, because it's "a basis, a part of your foundation for development." Too many people look at trains as if they should be an independently viable business, but that's "half the dog," he said.

According to Lampl, a more appropriate business model is a "big picture" of paying for transportation as infrastructure necessary to attract business to a city, as a "platform for development."

Other officials in the Southern Crescent, however, don't want any local money sucked into the commuter rail project.

Elizabeth "B.J." Matthis, the Henry County Board of Commissioners chairman-elect, said Henry County money shouldn't be committed to the rail, even though it will run through Hampton, right past Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"We're in an economy where we have to maximize every single tax dollar we have, to provide the most services we can for every city. This is ... not what the citizens want," Matthis said Thursday.

Even if everyone at the summit didn't support the train, though, and doesn't want commuter rail connecting the region, the summit was still a success because there was a "unified conversation," according to Andy Welch, with the Henry County Chamber of Commerce.

"Each county needs to make its own decision, if it wants to accept the benefits and also take the responsibilities," said Welch. "We're starting to have a unified understanding of what this project entails ... If we're going to contribute, what are the options? What are the ways, the benefits and liabilities?"

Snyder said the summit sought to answer those questions, and bring the cities and counties together by dealing with the misconceptions of commuter rail. A lot of the wariness toward the line, according to Snyder, comes from misconceptions about the ridership, demographics of riders, and land use around stations.

"There are options for all of them," Snyder said. "There are varieties of land uses and ways to use the benefits to specific locations. There are options that fit what their town wants and needs."