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NDDHARCDECISION8-17-11Wedne MISSING HEADLINE

Plans to re-establish bus service in Clayton County, turn Tara Boulevard into a "super arterial," and build a "western parallel connector" in Henry County are some of the local transportation projects still in contention to be funded by a proposed regional sales tax.

The executive committee of an Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) regional roundtable approved a $6.14 billion transportation project list late Monday. The project list could end up being the final list that goes before voters across a 10-county area next year during a massive Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) vote.

The price tags for projects slated for Clayton and Henry counties total up to $555.2 million.

"The roundtable executive committee worked tirelessly to craft a constrained list of priority projects that represent tremendous benefits to the entire region," said Norcross mayor Bucky Johnson, the committee's chairman, in a written statement. "We had representatives from all the major jurisdictions in the Atlanta region rolling up their sleeves to help the executive committee select projects with the greatest impact."

The list approved by the ARC this week still has to get approval from the full regional roundtable, which has the ability to remove or add projects, before it is definitively set in stone as the list that goes before voters next year. The full roundtable has until Oct. 15 to approve a final project list, according to ARC spokesman Jim Jaquish.

"The first meeting [of the entire roundtable] to discuss the full list is not scheduled to take place until early September," Jaquish said.

What's on the list

In addition to bus service and a Tara Boulevard super arterial for Clayton County, and the western parallel connector in Henry County, the 14 local projects approved by the roundtable's executive committee also include plans to build a "Jonesboro Connector" road that would cut around the Southside of the city, eight road widening projects, an extension of Ga. Hwy. 20/81, and make interchange improvements on Interstate 75 and Bill Gardner Parkway.

Henry County Commission Chairperson Elizabeth B.J. Mathis, a member of the ARC executive committee, and Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, an ARC roundtable member, said the projects that did make the list should help relieve congestion and keep existing businesses from leaving the area while luring in new businesses.

"A number of the [Henry] projects are concentrated around our industrial area," Mathis said. "Heavy truck traffic combined with residential growth the past 5 years has overburdened the two-lane roads. Congestion exists even in non-peak hours. There is real concern that if this congestion isn't solved we may lose businesses in the industrial park as they cannot move goods in and out of their facilities.

"In turn that would lead to job losses and a further decline in tax revenues," she added.

Bell added that Clayton County's projects will tie into other, surrounding areas. He said, for example, that improvements on Ga. Hwy. 85 are designed to help the city of Riverdale, as well as Fayette County, while improvements on Conley Road will tie into Aviation Boulevard, which leads into the new International Terminal under construction at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

"The ones that they did approve for Clayton County gives us a great deal of relief from the congestion that we have at this time," said Bell. He later added "They [improvements] will be a great benefit to us, and to the region."

Bell also said the planned bus service, to replace the C-Tran bus service that was shut down last year by the majority of members on the Clayton County Board of Commissioners, would in fact be an improvement from the old service. The chairman admitted there were flaws in C-Tran operations, particularly regarding its bus routes. He vowed that the county has learned from those flaws.

"There were a number of areas we did not touch with C-Tran, such as Ellenwood and Lovejoy," Bell said. "Also, C-Tran did not do a good job of going across the county, and we plan to take a hard look at that going forward [during planning for a new bus service]."

Commuter rail still off the list

A key absence from the list of local transportation projects, however, is a proposed Atlanta-to-Griffin commuter rail line, whose proponents have been fighting to get it back on the list after it was cut last month. Supporters asked the roundtable's executive committee, during a meeting of the group last week, to look further into the cost of the project, but committee members responded with silence.

Bell said he was "very disappointed we did not get the train," but he also vowed to keep fighting for commuter rail's inclusion in the regional SPLOST. He said it can still be added to the list, during the full roundtable's discussions on projects to be included in the process.

"We're not going to stop making our case for its inclusion," Bell said.

Henry County Chamber of Commerce President Kay Pippin, another commuter rail proponent, said the project's exclusion from the executive committee's project list was not unexpected. She also re-iterated an argument about a perceived regional bias against the Southside that she and other rail proponents made last week.

"I'm not surprised that the Atlanta-Griffin Commuter Rail Line was not added to the T-SPLOST projects list today by the ARC Roundtable, but there is still time," Pippin said. "The fact still remains that over $3 billion will be spent on transit, including rail, and no rail is planned for south of I-20. That's not a healthy approach to regionalism."

The public will voice its opinion

While the roundtable members debate what will be on the final list, the ARC also plans to take the executive committee-approved list out into the region, to gage the public's feelings on it. This will be done through public-input town hall meetings which will be conducted next month in each county in the Atlanta region.

Henry County's meeting is scheduled to take place on Sept. 13, from 6 p.m., to 8 p.m., at the Henry County Administrative Offices, at 140 Henry Pkwy., in McDonough. Clayton County's meeting is expected to take place on Sept. 29, from 6 p.m., to 8 p.m., in the boardroom at the Clayton County Board of Commissioners Office, at 112 Smith Street, in Jonesboro.

"It's [intended] to get the list out there in front of elected officials and the public, and just get some feedback on what they want, as well as which projects they support, and which projects they don't support," said ARC spokesman Jaquish.

-- Staff writer Jason Smith contributed to this report.