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State seeking stimulus funds for commuter rail projects

By Valerie Baldowski

vbaldowski@henryherald.com

Georgia Department of Transportation officials are hoping to learn by December whether they will receive a federal grant to help defray the cost of proposed commuter rail projects.

Erik Steavens, director of intermodal programs for GDOT, said the department has submitted an application requesting a portion of $1.5 billion in federal stimulus grant money.

He said the state's Transportation Board instructed its staff to put rail projects on the wish list for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants, which are part of the federal economic stimulus program. The department, Steavens said, hopes to have an answer from the federal government by the end of the year.

To initiate commuter rail service, GDOT has enough money to fund the first three years of operation, he said, without financial assistance from local communities. If the state transportation department receives the federal funding it applied for, he said, counties served by the rail line may still need to come up with some of their own money, only less of it.

The topic of the proposed commuter rail line, the first leg of which would run from Atlanta to Griffin, was discussed recently, during the Henry County Chamber of Commerce Transportation Committee luncheon. Ray Christman, executive director for the Livable Communities Coalition, was the keynote speaker, and said there is a need to study each community that would be affected by the rail line, to determine where the rail stations should be built.

Specific consideration, he said, should be given to how the area around the stations could be developed to promote job-creation and construction of affordable housing. "That could become the next economic engine for those communities," said Christman.

Henry County Commission Chairman Elizabeth "B.J." Mathis, however, said she was concerned about the financial considerations involved in building and operating the rail line, and the impact that could have on Henry. "The first hurdle that will even determine whether the rail will even come to the Southside," she said, "is whether the state can hold on to the [federal] money [that's already been set aside]. That's the first battle the state has."

According to Steavens, about 12 years ago, the federal government appropriated more than $85 million for passenger rail projects in the state. But that money could be taken away and redirected to other states, said Steavens, unless Georgia uses it fairly soon.

"Because that money hasn't been used, people start asking questions," he said. However, GDOT Deputy Press Secretary Erica Fatima said the state has plans for the money.

"There are funds that have been earmarked for commuter rail projects throughout the state," Fatima said. "We are actively engaged in producing a definitive commuter rail plan, one that we feel is comprehensive, and will meet the federal timeline for mid-2010."

Local officials said it is no secret that money is key to moving the initiative forward.

Taking into account the economy, Mathis said Henry County will not be able to commit any financial support for a commuter rail line. "There's no money in our budget for that, and there are no plans to put money in the budget for that," she said.

Like Henry, neither Clayton nor Spalding counties have the money in their budgets to support operation of the line, Mathis said. Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, who has been a strong supporter of the commuter rail concept, said he believes he has the support of the mayors in Clayton County, although there currently is no funding mechanism in place for the project.

However, Bell met earlier this month with officials with GDOT and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA), and he said he is convinced a commuter rail line will benefit the entire Southern Crescent area. "It will bring economic development potential to Clayton, Henry and Spalding counties that we've not, heretofore, seen, at a time when we need jobs on the Southside," he said.

Anthony Dukes, transportation planning manager for the City of Griffin and Spalding County, also said he supports the rail line. "The general consensus here is that we'd like to have alternative means of transportation," said Dukes.

However, he said, the state would need to help Spalding County with its financing needs in that area by providing some additional funds. "The only other alternative would be a Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), [but] SPLOST is tricky," he said. "You never know the political climate, and whether voters would support it."