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Rail project big part of Perdue's budget choices

Armed with line-item veto power a president can only envy, Gov. Sonny Perdue will decide by Tuesday the fate of hundreds of spending items in the budget adopted by the Legislature.

That's the 40th day since this year's General Assembly session ended in late March, the legal deadline for Georgia governors to veto bills or let them become law without their signature.

While Perdue thus far has signed the vast majority of bills before him, he has left the budget to the final hours, as do most governors. Unlike U.S. presidents, he has the authority to ax any item he wants while leaving the rest of the $18.65 billion 2007 spending plan intact.

But as the governor mulls what to do, one decision being closely watched doesn't involve one cent in next year's budget. It's language inserted into the budget bill on the last day of the session that prohibits the state from spending money on commuter rail projects without legislative approval.

To the provision's chief defender - House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ben Harbin, R-Evans - it's about open debate of decisions involving taxpayers' money and accountability on the part of elected officials.

But to passenger rail advocates, it was an 11th-hour stealth move designed to derail Georgia's first commuter rail project, a planned line linking downtown Atlanta with suburban Lovejoy.

The Georgia Association of Railroad Passengers has gone so far as to refer to it as "The Great Train Robbery," harkening back to the pioneering 1903 film by that name.

"There are certain people who hate rail," said Patty Durand, director of the state chapter of the Sierra Club, one of the organizations supporting the Lovejoy project. "They're afraid it's going to be wildly successful, and they're doing everything they can to stop it."

The 26-mile line, which could be up and running by 2008, would be the first leg of a commuter route extending south to Macon. Supporters of a second commuter line linking Atlanta and Athens via Gwinnett County are keeping their fingers crossed for Lovejoy because they would be next.

The decision Perdue faces is not clear cut. A veto of the budget provision would send a strong signal that the governor wants the Lovejoy line to go forward.

However, if he lets the language stay in the budget, that doesn't necessarily mean spending on the $106 million project grinds to a halt until the General Assembly convenes next January.

Harbin has said the provision only applies to the future funding of rail projects, a position that has been backed up by staff with the Georgia attorney general's office. That would let the Lovejoy line off the hook because sufficient federal and state money already is in the pipeline for the work.

However, State Transportation Board Chairman David Doss of Rome has said he believes the legislature's intent was to apply the provision to the Lovejoy line. Upon learning of the provision last month, the board opted not to go through with plans to buy 34 used rail cars from New Jersey Transit.

Doss was among the board members on the losing side last fall when the board narrowly voted to proceed with the project.

"We're really in a holding pattern now, unfortunately," said board member Dana Lemon of McDonough, one of the areas to be served by the line.

Lemon said the board has asked Department of Transportation staffers to meet with the board's Intermodal Committee later this month to provide guidance on whether another board vote is necessary to get the project back on track.

But even if no more votes are required, and even if the provision turns out not to affect Lovejoy, commuter rail advocates dismiss the budget language because it doesn't treat rail projects and other transportation improvements equally.

"If we're going to talk about accountability, we should be looking at road projects," said Lee Biola, president of Citizens for Progressive Transit. "Other areas of transportation spending are much more expensive than commuter rail."

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