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ARC roundtable postpones commuter rail decision

Eldrin Bell wants more time to examine funding

The proposed Atlanta-to-Griffin commuter rail line, which proponents have been trying for years to get off the ground, remains in limbo.

An Atlanta Regional Commission roundtable, tasked with creating a list of transportation projects for Atlanta area residents to vote on next year, decided Wednesday to postpone a decision on an amendment to add the rail line to the list.

The decision was made at the request of Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, who wanted more time to study funding options for the project.

The postponement means the roundtable will not take up the issue until its Oct. 6 meeting. Bell has to resubmit the amendment by an ARC deadline of Friday afternoon, however, for it to be considered.

“We [Clayton County commissioners] had initially suggested the money come from other transit projects [in the region],” Bell said. “But, I couldn’t find anybody [willing to give up funding], and I didn’t want to push anyone too hard about taking money out of their transit projects.

“So, I went back to my [board of commissioners], which agreed with me [on the idea] that we ought to look at the possibility of cutting back on some of our considerations, to put some money in the game.”

If the roundtable approves the amendment Bell is seeking on Oct. 6, it will not necessarily mean the commuter rail line is definitely on the list. Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, the roundtable’s chairman, said Wednesday that all amendments will have to be approved by the roundtable twice to actually make it onto the list.

The first vote, which in Clayton County’s case would be on Oct. 6, would be to decide whether to allow an amendment to be considered a second time, which would be at a later meeting when the roundtable sets a final project list. That decision, Johnson said, will take place on Oct. 13.

The project list is confined, under the state’s Transportation Investment Act, to cost no more than $6.1 billion, and the roundtable’s executive committee cut the commuter rail project this summer in an effort to get the list down to the allowed amount.

The southside commuter rail line, which has been in the planning stages for years, has some competition, however. DeKalb County Chief Executive Officer Burrell Ellis floated the idea of putting a $522 million MARTA eastern rail line, which would run through DeKalb County, on the list. Like the Atlanta-to-Griffin line, the MARTA eastern rail line was previously cut by the roundtable’s executive committee.

Bell said he believes the Atlanta-to-Griffin project stands a good chance of getting onto the final list, if it can survive the roundtable’s Oct. 6 vote. So, what if the roundtable rejects the commuter rail amendment? “I don’t even want to think about that,” said Bell, who added that he and other rail line proponents will “work diligently to keep this issue alive.”

Although Bell is asking for the roundtable to set aside $350 million on the final sales tax project list, for the commuter rail line, he added that he is willing to accept at least enough funding to do pre-construction work.

“If I can not get the money for the total project, I want to get enough money to study it, design it, and make it shovel-ready for any other monies that will come along that will assist Clayton County in getting this project done,” Bell said.

Georgians for Passenger Rail Chief Executive Officer Gordon Kenna said Clayton County’s decision to make cuts to its other projects to free up some funding for the rail line shows the county commission’s commitment to making the project happen. “I think that’s a very important consideration,” Kenna said. “It sort of demonstrates the seriousness of your intent when you say, ‘We’re willing to put our resources into this project.’ ”

Where can Clayton make cuts?

There is not much money in Clayton County’s transportation allocation for Bell to work with. The total price tag for Clayton’s projects currently on the proposed list is $313.17 million. That is less than the cost of the rail line request.

But, will Clayton County specifically give up all of its other projects, such as turning Tara Boulevard into a “super arterial” highway, or getting a new local bus service, to get commuter rail? “I don’t see that at this point, but we may cut them back,” Bell said. “[For] example, Tara Boulevard [the “super arterial” highway]. We may cut that back ... I put staff busy to get me some numbers. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to go forward today. I’ve got to have some numbers. In other words, give me the ammo [because] I’m ready to go.”

Colleen Kiernan, director of the Sierra Club’s Georgia Chapter, said cutting the Tara Boulevard project, and many other road projects across the region that are being recommended for sales tax funding, is perfectly OK with her. Kiernan attended the roundtable’s meeting on Wednesday, to announce the environmental advocacy group’s support for transit projects, particularly the Atlanta-to Griffin rail line.

“The metro Atlanta region is growing and changing demographically,” Kiernan said. “We have a lot of folks who have moved here from other places, and are interested in having transportation alternatives, [and] not just driving a big vehicle on a super arterial road. So, we’re really interested in the possibility of this potential tax to move transportation [in the area] towards the 21st century.

“Commuter rail is a big part of that ... I think this Atlanta-to-Griffin line is such an important first step, and it would really be a missed opportunity if that project didn’t make it on this list.”

Bell said he is planning to reach out to officials in Fulton and Henry counties in an effort to get them to follow Clayton’s lead in giving up partial funding for some of their projects (without actually eliminating any projects), to help pay for the rail line.

Atlanta risks falling behind other cities

Kiernan added that rejecting commuter rail on the project list, in favor of road projects, would put Atlanta behind other cities that have been more open to embracing rail lines as a transportation alternative. “Our state is lacking severely in funding for transportation alternatives,” she said. “If we miss this opportunity, we’re going to continue to lose ground on others ... such as Charlotte, and Dallas, and Denver, and Seattle, who are moving toward meeting their constituents’ needs by providing a transportation alternative.”

Kenna was critical of the process used by the roundtable, however, to create the transportation project list. He argued that, in an effort to obtain broad voter support, officials in the 10-county metro Atlanta region looked out for the interests of their individual counties, instead of those of the region as a whole.

“The interesting thing, for me, about this project, is that it is the only project that connects regions, and it has existing federal funding,” Kenna said. “But, the process that we have doesn’t favor that. It doesn’t favor ambitious projects that are multi-jurisdictional. The process seems to favor projects that are just in one county.”

Kiernan said that while the Sierra Club’s Georgia Chapter supports commuter rail lines, it has not decided whether it will support the transportation tax. She said the way the roundtable handles the request to add the Atlanta-to-Griffin rail line could have a significant impact in the environmental group’s decision to support, or oppose the tax.

She even floated the intriguing possibility of the group joining forces with the Republican-leaning, anti-tax Tea Party movement to fight the tax — if the list does not offer sufficient transportation alternatives.

“We intend to continue to follow the process really closely,” Kiernan said. “We’ll have to decide, at the time when the list becomes final, if we’re going to support it, and put our grassroots efforts behind trying to get it passed, or whether we’re going to join the Tea Party and encourage people to vote against it.”