Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, after months of fighting to get a proposed Atlanta-to-Griffin commuter rail line added to a 10-county regional sales tax project list, may be on the verge of getting enough money to at least see preliminary work begin on the project.
Bell is seeking an amendment to the $6.1 billion project list an Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) roundtable is compiling, for next year's one-cent transportation sales tax vote. The amendment would set aside $20 million, within Clayton County's existing $313.17 million allocation, for planning and preparation work on the long-stalled rail line.
The money for the preliminary work will come from a $27.83 million cut to the Tara Boulevard "super arterial" highway project that is currently on the project list, according to Bell's amendment request. The remaining $7.83 million included in the "super arterial" funding cut would be spread across other Clayton County projects already on the roundtable's list.
"This budget-neutral amendment request is required for shifting of funding, due to the inclusion of [the Atlanta-to-Griffin rail line] at a reduced scope, program management expenses, and an updated project cost estimate," Bell wrote in his amendment request. "Commuter rail is a vital transportation project for Clayton County, and the southern metropolitan Atlanta area.
"Inclusion of this project, at a reduced scope, will continue development and engineering activities for the project, positioning it as a strong candidate for construction in the future."
The ARC regional roundtable will vote today on whether to advance the amendment –– and more like it –– to the roundtable's Oct. 13 meeting, where the final vote will take place.
Today's meeting will begin at 9 a.m., at the Atlanta Regional Commission Amphitheater, located at 40 Courtland Street, in Atlanta.
Clayton County's requested amendment is not entirely a surprise. Bell hinted last week there was a possibility he might shift gears, and pursue only enough funding to get the commuter rail line "shovel ready" in case other funding sources become available in the future.
He already had said, at an ARC transportation forum held last Thursday, in Jonesboro, that money would have to come out of the "super arterial" allocation, to free up some funding for the commuter rail line. Bell could not be reached Wednesday for comment.
If the Clayton County amendment is approved, it would reduce funding for the super arterial conversion of Tara Boulevard, from $130 million, to $102.17 million. While $20 million of that cut would move to the commuter rail project, an additional $7 million would be moved to the Jonesboro connector road project (bringing that project's allocation to $15 million).
The allocation for the widening of Conley Road would increase by $300,000 (going up to $28.5 million), while the allocation for widening Ga. Hwy. 54, between Fayette County and Tara Boulevard, would go up by $80,000, to $8.1 million. The north widening of Ga. Hwy. 85 would increase by $250,000, to $17.2 million, and the south widening of the same highway would increase by $200,000, to $22.2 million.
The $100 million allocation for local bus service in Clayton County would remain unchanged, according to the amendment request.
"I would rather have both [commuter rail and local bus service]," Bell said after last week's ARC forum. "Both are equal priorities to me."
Bell originally sought $350 million to plan and build the rail project, but officials in other counties have also been pushing for changes to their allocations. The roundtable will look at a total of nine requested amendments that various counties are seeking.
DeKalb County, for instance, is seeking to get a $297 million addition to its allocation, to have a MARTA "eastern corridor" rail line added to its project list, at the expense of funding cuts to projects on Ga. Hwy. 400, and Interstate 285.
Henry County Commission Chairman Elizabeth "B.J." Mathis has also sought an amendment to the project list, but it will not add to, or take money from, Henry County's allocation, or change where funding for different projects in the allocation is spent.
Mathis' amendment would add $80,000 in capital and operations funding to a region-wide project-list item for the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) Xpress System. The money would be added to GRTA by taking some funding away from the Atlanta Beltline and streetcar project; a fixed guideway transit system connecting midtown Atlanta, to Smyna, and MARTA's Clifton Corridor transit project, according to the amendment.
"[The] principal reason is to fully restore existing GRTA Express System's level of service during the period of TIA sales tax," Mathis wrote in her amendment request. "This is essential, particularly for outer counties to continue to have transit access, to expand ridership within existing routes, and to familiarize residents in those counties with the option of alternative transportation modes."