Originally created 08/10/00

Railway supporters seek greater funding



ATLANTA - Georgia passenger-rail enthusiasts are seeking a record infusion of state dollars during the next budget cycle to keep on track plans to begin operating commuter lines connecting Atlanta with Athens and Macon by 2004.

But others, including some key members of the General Assembly, are warning that it's too soon to be plowing nearly $45 million into such an uncertain investment, a massive increase from the $7 million earmarked this year.

During the next several weeks, the state's rail program management team will take its recommendation for $44.6 million before board members from the three agencies with jurisdiction over passenger-rail projects: the state Transportation Board, the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

The six-member rail team, which includes two members from each of the boards, wants $17.5 million in the midyear 2001 budget and $27.1 million in the 2002 spending plan.

Gov. Roy Barnes will put together both budget requests this fall for consideration by the General Assembly during next winter's session.

The largest share of the funding - $23.8 million - would go toward the Atlanta-Athens line. An additional $12 million would go toward the route connecting Atlanta and Macon via Griffin.

Lesser amounts would go toward a proposed high-speed rail line between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn.; design and construction of a passenger terminal in downtown Atlanta that could accommodate trains and buses; and the rail team's costs.

With air pollution generated by motor-vehicle exhaust and traffic congestion in the Atlanta region growing worse each year, supporters say passenger-rail service will be even more crucial by the time the first commuter lines start up than it is today.

"Gridlock's not going to get any better," said E.H. Culpepper of Athens, a member of the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority. "We have to look at all (transportation) alternatives."

Sonny Deriso of Albany, chairman of the rail management team and a member of the GRTA board, said the costs of the projects will go up as time passes.

"We're going to have to start doing this at some point," he said. "To put if off wouldn't be right."

But Georgia Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson is concerned about making such a major commitment of state tax dollars before the latest ridership projections are available. Cost-benefit studies ordered by the rail management team that will include potential ridership numbers won't be ready until next spring, probably too late for lawmakers' budget deliberations.

"So far, there's very little evidence that passenger rail will do anything to relieve traffic, which is what the voters want," said Mr. Johnson, R-Savannah.

Rep. Ben Harbin, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, is worried that any influx in funding for passenger-rail projects would come at the expense of the Governor's Road Improvement Program.

GRIP projects - the four-laning of highways such as the Fall Line Freeway linking Augusta and Columbus via Macon and the Savannah River Parkway between Augusta and Savannah - have been behind schedule for years.

"Atlanta's been booming with growth," said Mr. Harbin, R-Martinez.

"Let's get the Savannah River Parkway and Fall Line Freeway done, things that are going to help economic development in our second-tier cities."

But Mr. Culpepper said funding GRIP projects and passenger-rail lines shouldn't be an either-or scenario. He said additional revenue sources must be identified and tapped to expand the transportation pot.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.