Commuter rail clears first hurdle for SPLOST



The long-stalled Atlanta-to-Griffin commuter rail project got new life Thursday when a roundtable of nearly two dozen Atlanta-area elected officials voted unanimously to consider adding planning for the rail line to a regional transportation sales tax project list.

Officially, the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) roundtable only voted to let an amendment –– moving around funding in the Clayton County allocation for the project list –– to advance for a final vote. That vote will be held next week.

The amendment would move $27.83 million in funding from a proposed Tara Boulevard “super arterial” project to other items within the allocation. Most of the money will be used for commuter rail planning.

Despite the formalities, Thursday’s vote was a major step forward for the project because it was a significant hurdle that had to be cleared to get work on the rail line rolling. It would set aside $20 million for planning, engineering and rail readiness work on the rail line.

While roundtable members could change their minds before the Oct. 13 final vote on the amendment, the rail line’s supporters — including Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell — expressed confidence that it will pass.

“Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” said a jubilant Bell, after the vote on Thursday. “Finally, I got enough money to serve as a place-holder that will put us in a position to seek state, federal and local monies for the construction of the commuter rail project.”

The roundtable’s decision in favor of Clayton’s amendment, comes as a pay-off of sorts, for two months of efforts by rail supporters to get the project on the proposed regional transportation Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) list.

Supporters of the rail line, including Georgians for Passenger Rail Executive Director Gordon Kenna, and Lake City Mayor Willie Oswalt (a roundtable member) expressed enthusiasm over the roundtable’s decision. Kenna said he was “pleased” to see funding closer to being in place, to allow the project to begin.

“It’s very important, because the project is really at risk of dying, if we don’t give it funding,” he said. “And, $20 million is really significant. It will enable us to complete the environmental work, [and] to do intergovernmental agreements ... This is not money to study the feasibility [of the rail line]. We know it’s feasible. This is planning money, to advance this to the next step.”

Oswalt said the money opens the door for economic development opportunities in Clayton County, even if the funding only pays for planning. He added that there is “no doubt” it is a good starting point for the county. “According to the experts, throughout the country, it brings economic development,” he said. “It’ll help, if we can afford it.”

Major steps still have to take place for the planning funding to become a reality, however. In addition to the roundtable’s upcoming final vote, residents in the 10-county metropolitan Atlanta transportation region will vote next year on whether to institute the tax.

But, Bell said he is preparing to move forward with plans to “press” U.S. Congressmen David Scott (D-Ga.) and Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) to help secure federal funding for construction of the rail line. The Clayton County Commission chairman has said it will cost a total of $350 million to plan and build the line.

Bell, and Clayton County Transportation and Development Director Jeff Metarko, said the county has to get intergovernmental agreements set up with officials in Spalding and Bibb counties, and their respective transportation regions, to tie together funding to get the project built.

Although funding has been sought for an Atlanta-to-Griffin rail line, the idea is to really build a passenger rail connection between Atlanta and Macon. “I want to start talking about us [Clayton, Spalding and Bibb counties] as a tri-level unit,” Bell said.

Metarko, who will be responsible for determining the scope of the project after funding is in place, said an intergovernmental agreement with the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) will also have to be sought. “Collectively, on all of the projects, we’re supposed to be addressing intergovernmental agreements,” he said.

“The specifics of the agreement will determine who does what, and who’s responsible for what components of the project,” Metarko added.

Bell said the Three Rivers Transportation Region, which includes Spalding County, and the Middle Georgia Transportation Region, which includes Bibb County, have agreed to set aside some money in their own transportation SPLOSTs to build their sections of the rail project.

That money has been contingent, however, on the Atlanta region making some sort of funding commitment to the project. “We’ve now done something [about Atlanta funding],” Bell said. “While it may be small, I urge them to keep their commitments at its highest possible potential.”

Vote postponed on GRTA funding amendment

Meanwhile, the roundtable tabled discussions on two proposed amendments to add funding for the GRTA Xpress Bus service, including one proposed by Henry County Commission Chairman Elizabeth “B.J.” Mathis. Roundtable members disagreed Thursday on whether to provide full operational funding for GRTA, which Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said would keep the agency funded at pre-2008 levels.

The roundtable is scheduled to further discuss these amendments at its Oct. 11 meeting.

Mathis said the Xpress bus service is crucial in the metro-Atlanta region’s outlying counties, such as Henry, Douglas and Cherokee, because it is their main source of traffic relief on area interstates. She and Douglas County Commission Chairman Tom Wortham said bus service likely would be reduced without additional funding for GRTA.

“We need to come up with at least $34 million, to $47 million, to continue operating GRTA at it’s current levels,” Mathis said.

Henry County, alone, could see a nearly 40 percent reduction in GRTA bus service, if more operating funds are not provided, Mathis said. She added that having the bus service, which acts as a shuttle service between local neighborhoods and downtown Atlanta, takes an estimated 1,200 cars a day off Interstate 75, in Henry County, during peak rush hour periods.

“We cannot afford to lose bus service in Henry County,” Mathis said. “The addition of more cars, once this service is cut — with the reductions that have been proposed for this current funding level — every lane [on the interstate] will be failing. This is the only alternative our people have to get into the downtown [Atlanta] area, and that is why it’s critical that we maintain funding for the GRTA Xpress service.”