Originally created 01/18/00

Proposal cuts rail funding



ATLANTA -- With the General Assembly's two spending committees set to begin hearings on Gov. Roy Barnes' $14.4 billion budget proposal today, passenger rail service is shaping up to be among the losers.

Among the requests the governor is not including in his budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is $5 million to complete design work and start construction on a commuter rail line between Athens and Atlanta. Mr. Barnes has axed $1 million in planning money for each of several proposed intercity routes, including lines linking Atlanta and Augusta, Macon and Savannah, and Macon and Brunswick.

Although Mr. Barnes is asking for an 8.5 percent spending increase, he told lawmakers during his budget address last week that many worthy requests didn't survive his bean counters.

Among the items feeling the pinch are the state program that funds the construction of artificial reefs off the Georgia coast, which the governor plans to eliminate, and funds to help the Georgia Civil War Commission hire a full-time director.

"I received $1.5 billion more in agency budget requests than we have in revenues," Mr. Barnes said. "And nobody's ever brought down that magic wand I keep asking for."

In the case of passenger rail service, Mr. Barnes wants to concentrate on updating studies on the potential for commuter and intercity lines before committing to specific routes, said Arthur Vaughn, executive director of the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority.

Some lawmakers have said they won't support funding to build the proposed lines until they're convinced passenger rail would work in Georgia.

"I didn't hear anything negative about what we asked for," Mr. Vaughn said. "It's just a matter of continuing with the consultant studies before we make further commitments.

On the plus side for passenger rail supporters, the governor's budget would increase the rail authority's funding by nearly $153,000, which would allow it to add two full-time employees and pursue the necessary feasibility studies, Mr. Vaughn said.

The artificial reefs program, which received $266,000 this year, would lose that plus $190,000 the state Department of Natural Resources requested for next year.

Other than tiny Gray's Reef, artificial reefs provide the only habitat for fish-attracting coral within 40 miles of the Georgia coast, said Joe Christiansen, president of Geothermal Energy Management of Richmond Hill, which has built and placed about 600 small concrete reef structures this year under a contract with the state. Each is about 4 feet tall with a 4-foot base.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.