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DOT board split over rail line

ATLANTA- Within the 13-member State Transportation Board are several avid enthusiasts for bringing passenger-rail service to Georgia, several skeptics and least one outright opponent.

But it's the majority of board members who have said little or nothing publicly about plans to run a commuter rail line from Atlanta to Lovejoy who will decide the project's fate, perhaps as soon as this week.

The $106 million project's most vocal boosters, not surprisingly, are board members representing congressional districts that lie along the planned route, from downtown Atlanta through southern Fulton County and into Clayton County.

Political and business leaders in Clayton are so excited about its economic development potential that the county commission has agreed to cover the line's operational and maintenance shortfalls, projected at $4 million a year.

"It's a major sign of support when a community has offered up financial support," said board member Dana Lemon of McDonough. "We haven't asked that of communities with any of our other projects."

But pressure from below to approve the project can only be counted on to help produce three "yes" voters on the board: Lemon, Emory McClinton of Atlanta, and Ward Edwards, whose 3rd Congressional District would benefit from future plans to extend the line south from Lovejoy to Macon.

Most board members represent districts far removed from the Atlanta-to-Macon corridor and, thus, have no direct stake in the proposed rail line.

But McClinton predicted those members still will support the Lovejoy project because the state has long-term plans to extend passenger-rail service to every corner of Georgia.

"They realize they will be impacted by our rail program," he said. "All over the state will benefit from a rail program. It's not just commuter rail. It's passenger rail and inter-city rail."

Indeed, some of the state's biggest supporters of passenger rail over the years have been lawmakers representing rural Middle and South Georgia, including former House Speaker Terry Coleman, D-Eastman.

But when it comes to the transportation board, that was then and this is now.

Johnny Gresham, a veteran board member from Marietta, noted that many of the board members from outlying parts of Georgia who viewed passenger rail favorably are no longer on the board.

"We've had a heck of a lot of turnover," he said. "It's a different board today than it was prior to now. ... It's a different ball game."

Still, Gresham acknowledged the pressure on board members to sign off on the Lovejoy project. He said he's been bombarded with letters, e-mails and phone calls from Clayton County residents, most asking him to support the rail line.

But board Chairman David Doss, of Rome, one of DOT board split over rail line

ATLANTA

Within the 13-member State Transportation Board are several avid enthusiasts for bringing passenger-rail service to Georgia, several skeptics and least one outright opponent.

But it's the majority of board members who have said little or nothing publicly about plans to run a commuter rail line from Atlanta to Lovejoy who will decide the project's fate, perhaps as soon as this week.

The $106 million project's most vocal boosters, not surprisingly, are board members representing congressional districts that lie along the planned route, from downtown Atlanta through southern Fulton County and into Clayton County.

Political and business leaders in Clayton are so excited about its economic development potential that the county commission has agreed to cover the line's operational and maintenance shortfalls, projected at $4 million a year.

"It's a major sign of support when a community has offered up financial support," said board member Dana Lemon of McDonough. "We haven't asked that of communities with any of our other projects."

But pressure from below to approve the project can only be counted on to help produce three "yes" voters on the board: Lemon, Emory McClinton of Atlanta, and Ward Edwards, whose 3rd Congressional District would benefit from future plans to extend the line south from Lovejoy to Macon.

Most board members represent districts far removed from the Atlanta-to-Macon corridor and, thus, have no direct stake in the proposed rail line.

But McClinton predicted those members still will support the Lovejoy project because the state has long-term plans to extend passenger-rail service to every corner of Georgia.

"They realize they will be impacted by our rail program," he said. "All over the state will benefit from a rail program. It's not just commuter rail. It's passenger rail and inter-city rail."

Indeed, some of the state's biggest supporters of passenger rail over the years have been lawmakers representing rural Middle and South Georgia, including former House Speaker Terry Coleman, D-Eastman.

But when it comes to the transportation board, that was then and this is now.

Johnny Gresham, a veteran board member from Marietta, noted that many of the board members from outlying parts of Georgia who viewed passenger rail favorably are no longer on the board.

"We've had a heck of a lot of turnover," he said. "It's a different board today than it was prior to now. ... It's a different ball game."

Still, Gresham acknowledged the pressure on board members to sign off on the Lovejoy project. He said he's been bombarded with letters, e-mails and phone calls from Clayton County residents, most asking him to support the rail line.

But board Chairman David Doss, of Rome, one of the newer board members, said those local concerns must be balanced by the need to be careful with taxpayers' money.

He said what worries him is a letter from the federal government warning that the $87 million appropriated by Congress for the project doesn't carry a lifetime guarantee. If something goes wrong with its financial underpinnings - such as Clayton County pulling out of its agreement with just a one-year notice - Doss fears the state could be forced to reimburse the feds for part of their investment.

"It becomes, to me, as $87 million gamble with the taxpayers' money," he said. "And I've never been a big gambler."

Dave Williams is a staff writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com