Clayton BOC asks for commuter rail reconsideration

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted, Tuesday, to ask members of an Atlanta Regional Commission executive committee to consider putting an Atlanta-to-Griffin commuter rail line back on a project list for next year's regional transportation tax vote.

The rail line, which Clayton commissioners approved as one of their requests for the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax list earlier this year, was removed from consideration last month amid concerns about costs and the length of time needed to complete it.

Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said the project was later put on the executive committee's "for further discussion" list one of its members, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Essentially, the county commission's new resolution, asking for the project's re-instatement, is an attempt to show the ARC's transportation roundtable's executive committee that commuter rail is truly wanted on the Southside.

"It was important to me to have our board speak, so that they [the ARC] could know that the sponsors of this project are fully behind it," said Bell, a longtime commuter rail proponent and ARC roundtable member. "My effort here is to keep it alive, to give the full roundtable the opportunity to continue discussion on it until such time as we approve the final list."

The proposed line would begin in Atlanta, go down the middle of Clayton County and into Southwest Henry County, before heading into Griffin. It is part of a proposed Atlanta-to-Macon commuter rail line, which has been stuck in the planning stages for several years, because of funding issues.

The rail line, according to the resolution, would connect MARTA, the Atlanta Streetcar project (which is on the transportation SPLOST project list), a multi-modal passenger terminal (another project on the SPLOST list), the Atlanta Beltline project, and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. It would use an existing Norfolk Southern rail line.

Voters in a 10-county metro Atlanta transportation region, which includes Clayton and Henry counties, are set to vote next year on approval of a one-cent special transportation sales tax. The ARC's roundtable is tasked with compiling a $6.1 billion project list for the SPLOST vote.

The final list will be approved the full roundtable "sometime between now and October," Bell said.

Clayton County commissioners outlined several reasons why the executive committee should reconsider cutting the project, including the fact that the rail line would pass through several communities, and near nine universities, and could create opportunities for economic development in those communities.

"The commuter rail project was nominated due to its unique location as the only rail transportation project in the jurisdictions south of Interstate 20," the resolution states.

Other reasons include an assertion that the rail line "can be delivered with significant speed and ease of construction, particularly when compared with other proposed rail projects," as well as the argument that $87 in federal funding has already been earmarked to pay for the Southside commuter rail project.

Bell also said he disagrees with the state's cost projections of $800 million for the project. He said it should cost far less than that projection. "I have no confidence in the state's cost projections," he said. "It will probably cost $200 million, to $250 million."

Clayton County's commission chairman added that, outside of the county commission, public support for the commuter rail project "continues and it's growing." Individuals and groups that have already publicly offered support for the rail line include Henry County Chamber of Commerce President Kay Pippin, and the Georgians for Passenger Rail group.

Pippin called the Clayton Commission's resolution "fantastic," even though she admitted the SPLOST project list is still a "moving target" that could continually change before a final list is approved. She said, however, "it is time [for] a major infrastructure investment to be made on the Southside" of Atlanta.

"If this state is serious about solving the dilemma of the two Georgia's, this commuter rail is an investment that could do just that," Pippin said. "It not only cuts across the southern portion of the metro region, but it [also] connects to other regions of the state."

Henry County Commission Chairman Elizabeth "B.J." Mathis, a member of the ARC's roundtable executive committee, could not be reached for comment.