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Late budget add-on halts rail funding

LAWRENCEVILLE - Passenger rail enthusiasts reacted angrily Friday to a setback in plans to launch Georgia's first commuter rail project, a $106 million line connecting Atlanta with suburban Lovejoy.

But supporters of a second proposed commuter line linking Atlanta to Athens via Gwinnett County said it would be affected only slightly if at all by any delay in the Lovejoy project.

The State Transportation Board on Thursday agreed to let elapse a deadline for the purchase of used rail cars for the Lovejoy line after board members got word of a provision lawmakers had quietly inserted into the fiscal 2007 budget on the last day of the recent session.

The provision prohibits the state from spending any money on commuter rail projects without the General Assembly's approval. Since the Legislature doesn't meet again until January, the Lovejoy project effectively would be put on hold until lawmakers put together the 2008 budget next winter.

"Georgians are ready for transportation alternatives,'' Patty Durand, director of the state chapter of the Sierra Club, said in a written statement. "This project was ready to roll before someone created a train wreck behind closed doors.''

But Rep. Ben Harbin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the provision wasn't intended to sink any commuter rail line. Harbin, R-Evans, said it simply was an effort to guarantee accountability in the budget process.

"We've got some folks who are for it and some against,'' he said. "If you're going to appropriate money, you ought to know what it's being spent on.''

In a joint statement, the Sierra Club and a group called Citizens for Progressive Transit called on the lawmakers responsible for the 11th-hour provision to identify themselves.

Rep. John Heard, R-Lawrenceville, a supporter of the Atlanta-to-Athens line, said the legislators who pushed for the provision were Reps. Steve Davis and John Lunsford, two Republicans from McDonough who oppose the Lovejoy project.

Neither Davis nor Lunsford could be reached on Friday.

Lunsford sponsored legislation this year to require a voter referendum before a commuter rail line could be run through a city or county, while Davis introduced a bill last year to prohibit rail projects unless all local governments along the route agreed to underwrite the operating costs. Neither measure made it through the House Transportation Committee.

The two lawmakers acted after an outcry from Henry County residents worried about local taxpayers being forced to subsidize a regional project.

Their concerns were well placed; The Clayton County Commission voted last year to cover the Lovejoy line's operating deficits, estimated at $4 million a year.

Supporters of the Lovejoy and Athens lines said they hope Gov. Sonny Perdue will veto the provision from next year's budget, which takes effect on July 1. The governor has until May 9 to veto legislation enacted by the General Assembly this year before it becomes law.

"The fact that somebody slipped a couple of lines into the budget is something of a fluke,'' said Emory Morsberger, a Lilburn developer and chairman of a coalition of business and political leaders pushing the Atlanta-to-Athens line. "I don't think the majority of the legislature knows that was in there.''

Perdue spokeswoman Heather Hedrick said the governor probably won't announce any line item budget vetoes until the final days leading up to May 9. But she said Perdue believes the General Assembly should be a player in such an expensive project.

"Commuter rail is a very ambitious endeavor,'' Hedrick said. "That is all the more reason we would want the Legislature to be involved in the process.''

Heard said that even if Perdue lets the provision stand, it probably wouldn't delay the Athens line because the project still is in the early planning stages.

"We're far enough out that I think we can get some mopping up done before we need any money,'' Heard said.