Originally created 03/10/02

Proposed rail system has no midyear funds



ATLANTA - The General Assembly's chief budget writers spent much of last week haggling over which big-ticket projects to keep in the 2002 midyear budget.

University construction, prisons and parks projects came and went. But one subject that hasn't come up during the still-unresolved conference-committee negotiations is moving forward with an ambitious plan to create a statewide passenger rail network.

The midyear budget would commit nearly $2.6 million in bonds toward acquiring property in downtown Atlanta for a bus and train terminal. But there's no money to design or build any of the planned commuter or intercity rail lines that would connect to the facility.

Since the Legislature traditionally includes such capital projects in the midyear budget, it's the last hope for major state funding of passenger rail until next year's session.

Some supporters say rail funding is another victim of the recession, which has sent state tax revenues plunging for seven consecutive months for the first time since the early 1950s. Late last year, Gov. Roy Barnes ordered state agencies to cut 2.5 percent of their spending for the current fiscal year, and his 2003 budget request contains a 5 percent across-the-board reduction.

"At a time when we're having to cut services, it's difficult to move forward with a transportation project of this magnitude," said Sonny Deriso, the chairman of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and former head of the multiagency state board in charge of passenger rail planning.

BUT OTHERS AREN'T buying the argument that the state must rein in capital-intensive long-term projects such as passenger rail service until the economy turns around.

Mr. Barnes already is behind plans to speed up the construction of highways, schools and other public buildings, said John Hedrick, the president of the People's Transit Organization, an advocacy group based in Monticello, Fla., that has members in south Georgia.

If those projects can be sold to lawmakers as a way to stimulate the economy, he says, why doesn't passenger rail merit the same treatment?

"This is investment that pays off because it creates jobs," Mr. Hedrick said. "This type of spending is what the economy needs."

While a statewide passenger rail network has been talked about for years, the idea gained momentum in the late 1990s when the metro Atlanta region was stripped of federal funding for new highway projects because of poor air quality, much of it attributable to automobile traffic.

In 1999, several state agencies involved in transportation planning proposed two commuter lines connecting Atlanta with Athens and Macon, along with a series of intercity lines reaching out from the Georgia capital to Augusta, Savannah and Jacksonville, Fla.

Two years ago, the General Assembly passed legislation establishing a priority list for the various routes.

The rail-planning board approved specific routes for the Athens and Macon commuter-rail lines last year, both running along existing freight-rail corridors, and agreed that express-bus service to and from Atlanta should be put in place while the rail lines are being planned and built.

But when the governor announced an $8.3 billion transportation-construction initiative last spring, the Atlanta-to-Macon line and a light-rail project connecting suburban Cobb County to downtown Atlanta were the only rail lines included.

While that put Macon ahead of Athens on the priority list, obstacles other than the recession have emerged to hold up progress on the Macon line.

The state has yet to reach an agreement with Norfolk Southern Corp., which owns the freight-rail line between Atlanta and Macon, on sharing the corridor.

"I think both sides want to do this," said Mr. Deriso, who is handling the negotiations for the state. "(But) we're still not together on a price."

WITH NO STATE FUNDING for the passenger rail, planners are looking to the federal government for help.

Passenger rail funding promises to be a high-profile issue in Congress this year.

For one thing, the importance of passenger rail service was heightened by the temporary shutdown of America's airlines after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Another factor is that Amtrak, the heavily subsidized national passenger rail system created in the 1970s, could be abolished this year if it doesn't demonstrate that it can become self-sufficient.

The Amtrak Reform Council, created by Congress to serve as a watchdog, already has declared that the system as currently structured cannot meet that deadline.

The congressional scrutiny of Amtrak is creating opportunities to commit more federal dollars to what rail supporters argue has been a chronically underfunded system.

Several bills now are before the U.S. House and Senate, including legislation introduced last week by Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C., and co-sponsored by Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., that gives priority consideration to funding high-speed rail service in the Atlanta and Chicago regions.

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