Can commuter rail make it?

Thursday began with high hopes and tough talk from commute-rail proponents, during an early-morning "rally" at the Atlanta Regional Commission's office in downtown Atlanta.

Rail advocates are seeking to get a proposed Atlanta-to-Griffin line put back on a list of projects to be funded through a regional transportation sales tax.

11 a.m., however, the ARC roundtable executive committee that is building the list had appeared to show no outward signs of support for the project during a public meeting of the body, held after the rally. The rail line's proponents were left trying to remain optimistic.

Such is life for a transit project that proponents say has been studied extensively for more than 10 years, received some federal funding, and gotten the blessing of the railroad company (Norfolk Southern) whose lines will be used for the project. Despite those advantages, the Atlanta-to-Griffin rail line has endured, what many say, are too many years of "stop-and-go" momentum.

After it was cut last month from the proposed projects list for next year's regional transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) vote, commuter rail supporters, including Clayton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell, have fought to keep it going.

"No response [from the executive committee] means no consideration at this time, but I don't consider it to be dead," said Bell, after the committee's meeting.

The ARC roundtable's executive committee received a $6.56 billion list of projects, Thursday, that are still in play for inclusion on the final project list. Although bus service in Clayton County, and several road projects for Clayton and Henry counties are still in contention, the Atlanta-to-Griffin commuter line was not on the list distributed at the meeting.

The list has to be cut down to a final one with projects totaling only $6.14 billion.

Bell asked the executive committee to have Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) officials meet with Georgians for Passenger Rail officials, to discuss discrepancies in projected costs for the project. State officials have estimated the rail project's costs at $800 million, but Georgians for Passenger Rail Executive Director Gordon Kenna said his group's studies have pegged the costs at $300 million.

Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, the executive committee's chairman, asked committee members if they had any response to Bell's request, but none of them said a word. "It's not the first mistake, nor the last mistake they will make," Kenna said. "I think this is more important to look at this as the beginning of the actual public comment period."

Bell said the cost numbers are important, because "I've been assured many roundtable members that they will support me, if we come up with the figures."

Few attend commuter rail "rally"

The commuter rail "rally" was apparently hastily organized, and drew only a handful of officials, including Bell, Kenna, State Sen. Gail Davenport (D-Jonesboro), Spalding County Board of Commissioners Chairman Eddie Freeman, Hapeville Mayor Pro Tempore Ann Ray, and Richard Swindle, the senior vice president of Mercer University's Atlanta campus.

While the "rally" failed to attract more public officials or residents, the most notable absence was most of the membership of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners, who had been billed as the hosts of the event.

Clayton County Commission Vice Chairman Wole Ralph, and Commissioners Sonna Singleton, Gail Hambrick and Michael Edmondson were not present. "I don't know anything about it [the "rally"], because I've been at work all day," Singleton said. She also said all transportation questions should be directed to Ralph.

In a written statement, Ralph said, "It was never the intent of all commissioners to attend the [‘rally']," adding, "the chairman is our spokesman on this issue and we support him on this issue." Hambrick and Edmondson could not be reached for comment.

Why commuter rail?

The Atlanta-to-Griffin commuter rail line is part of a longer, proposed Atlanta-to-Macon commuter line that could eventually be extended to Savannah. Proponents pitch it as an economic-development engine for several communities, as well as a traffic-congestion reliever.

Spalding County's Freeman said the project is important "for the economic growth, and the economic development, up and down the line. It will be a tremendous boost to us." Spalding County is located in a different transportation region (the Three Rivers Region) from Clayton and Henry counties.

Kenna told executive committee members, at their meeting, that: "This is a line that, in terms of equity and economic development, are without equal in terms of their impact on our region."

Mercer University's Swindle said the rail line (when ultimately expended to Macon) will also connect nine public and private post-secondary institutions, including Central Georgia Technical College, Clayton State University, Georgia State University, Gordon College, Macon State University, Mercer University, Southern Crescent Technical College, the University of Georgia's Griffin campus, and Wesleyan College.

Freeman said the Three Rivers Region has included money for it's portion of the rail line, from the Henry-Spalding county line, to Griffin, in its own transportation SPLOST list.

Southside being ignored?

One of the sentiments among several proponents of commuter rail is that the majority of transit projects being approved for the regional SPLOST are located north of Interstate 20. Several supporters argued that less than three percent of the money being set aside for transit projects will go to projects on the Southside.

Ray, of Hapeville, compared the Atlanta region to a flat tire, with the Southside being the flat part. "We get the scraps and the leftovers," she said. She later added, "If they don't put commuter rail back on that list, I don't believe it's going to pass on the Southside."

Henry County Chamber of Commerce President Kay Pippin blasted the executive committee for not including more transit projects for the Southside on the SPLOST projects list. "We're about to do the biggest thing we've done as a region, ever in our history, and you are completely ignoring half the region," Pippin said. "There are thousands of people who want to be a part of your region, but you're going to have to open the door, and let us come in."

Henry County Board of Commissioners Chairman Elizabeth "B.J." Mathis, a member of the roundtable's executive committee, said the commuter rail line's sponsors in Clayton County need to keep emphasizing the equity argument. "From a transit standpoint, I could see where they are coming from, and that is an issue that I think Chairman Bell, because this is a project that he submitted, needs to probably re-iterate," she said.

Rail not a Henry County priority?

Bell said getting Henry County and Spalding County to sign on as sponsors of the Atlanta-to-Griffin commuter rail line, for the transportation SPLOST, is one of the things he feels he needs to do to build a stronger case for the project. Although Pippin has been a vocal supporter of the commuter line, Mathis said she has not seen as much support for the project elsewhere in Henry County.

"From the folks that I have had conversations with, this is not a priority," Mathis said. There are other transit issues that need to be focused on in the county, she said, which has seen its population boom in recent years. Those issues center around upgrading Henry County's transportation infrastructure, particularly its roads, to catch up with other, more-developed counties in the metro Atlanta area, she added.

"Our priorities are actually on the [SPLOST projects] list," she said. "We're still 20 years behind some of the more-urbanized counties in getting our infrastructure in place, so we're still focusing. All of our projects have come from our comprehensive transportation plan."