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Commuter rail funding proposed in HB 277

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

After a few recent legislative amendments, commuter rail for the Southern Crescent will be considered along with a number of other projects for funding through a proposed $25 billion statewide transportation sales tax.

If approved by the Georgia General Assembly, the governor, and the people of Georgia, a commuter rail line from Atlanta to Griffin may move a step closer to becoming a reality.

Last Wednesday, state Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Jonesboro) convinced House member to amend House Bill 277, adding funding for the Atlanta to Lovejoy and Lovejoy to Griffin sections of a proposed commuter rail line.

The bill won a favorable recommendation from the House Transportation Committee and most likely will come up for debate and a vote today, according to Glanton.

"The bill is on the calendar for debate on the House floor," Glanton said Monday. "I think the bill will pass the House." He said he believes there is support in both the House and the Senate for HB 277 and Senate Resolution 44, which would provide the mechanism for a regional Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax to fund transportation projects.

Glanton said transportation is one of the state's biggest priorities and locally, the commuter rail project is a top priority.

"It's extremely important for Clayton County, and the Southern Crescent as a whole, to have these amendments in the bill," he said. "I think it would be a travesty to have a $25 billion piece of legislation passed without any support for commuter rail."

Glanton suggested there has been a debate among some legislators on whether to concentrate funding on the proposed "Brain Train" project, which would connect Atlanta to Athens by rail. With around $87 million in federal funds already dedicated to the Atlanta to Griffin project, he believes the Southern Crescent's commuter rail is an equally viable project.

"It would be a lot easier to start building commuter rail with $87 million rather than zero, like you would have to with the 'Brain Train' or any other rail project," said Glanton. "This shouldn't be 'Brain Train' versus Atlanta to Lovejoy. It ought to be a concerted effort because we need both. My effort was not to get the 'Brain Train' removed, it was to get the Atlanta to Lovejoy [project] included in the bill."

State Sen. Gail Buckner (D-Morrow) is a co-signer on SR 44. She said whether through state funding, or regional funding, it is important to fund the commuter rail project as soon as possible.

"The commuter rail has been in the works for a very long time and it's critically important that we move forward with it," said Buckner. "We started out with $120 million. That has been sitting in reserve, waiting for the commuter rail to get started. We can lose this funding if we don't begin a definite commitment to commuter rail.

"The Senate is working on a bill for regional funding," she said. "I really believe we will design a conference committee that will bring these two bills together."

Glanton said it is "imperative" that the General Assembly pass legislation during this session to fund transportation. He believes the House and Senate will work in the best interest of the state.

"Both of them are trying to address the same issues, the lack of transportation funding in Georgia," said Glanton. "Regardless of what is passed by the House, the two bills will come together in a conference committee to find out what is best for Georgia. If we don't make transportation a priority, we are really stifling ourselves when it comes to economic development around the state," he said.