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Feds Take Back Millions in Unused Money for Atlanta Commuter Rail

Just days after Clayton County leaders took a giant step toward mass transit, the federal government clawed back $45 million for a commuter rail line in Clayton.

By Andria Simmons

Just days after Clayton County leaders took a giant step toward mass transit, the federal government clawed back $45 million for a commuter rail line in Clayton.

The money for the 26-mile line, from Atlanta to Lovejoy at the southern end of Clayton County, sat unused for nearly 10 years. The Federal Transit Administration informed the state on Monday that it was taking the funds back.

Commuter rail is a familiar service in many U.S. cities -- Boston, New York, Chicago, Dallas, Seattle, Orlando and more -- but it does not exist in metro Atlanta. And on July 1, the federal government clawed back the funding for the only commuter rail project in Georgia for which funding was in hand.

The Federal Transit Administration's withdrawal of the $45 million came right after the Clayton County Commission voted to put a MARTA referendum on the ballot in November. The one-cent sales tax would have generated the funds need to operate the commuter rail line.

"Its unfortunate, because all these years we've been trying to find a long-term source of operating money that would allow us to use that money," said Lee Biola, president of Citizens for Progressive Transit. "And now that we're on the cusp of getting it, we're going to lose it."

He hastened to add, "While I hate to lose that money, it's not the biggest pot of money involved here anymore."

The move did not come as a complete surprise, although the timing was unexpected. The federal government has been eyeing unused appropriations for years and threatening to reclaim them as it faced shortages in transportation funding.

U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta, who lobbied to get the money and later to protect it, said he still hopes that commuter rail will be a possibility in the future. But first, the state and the railroad company that owns the line have to fully support the project, and the rail would need to extend all the way to Macon to be the economic development tool it was envisioned to be.

In the meantime, Scott said the loss of the funding shouldn't take away from Clayton County's accomplishment in getting a MARTA referendum on the ballot. He hoped that anti-referendum voters would not use the loss of the earmark as a means to throw cold water on the upcoming sales tax vote.

"What we have to do now is be mindful of what we have going for us," Scott said. "We've got to keep stepping positively and we've got to know that Clayton County doesn't need a commuter rail coming through. This full penny provides the public transportation they need and will go 100 percent to benefit Clayton County."

Initially, more than $80 million was set aside for the commuter rail project, said Natalie Dale, a spokeswoman for GDOT. About $18 million of that was matching state funding that never had to be paid out. Another $24 million was siphoned off for studies on the proposed Multi-Modal Passenger Terminal at a dilapidated area of downtown Atlanta known as "The Gulch." The terminal was envisioned to be the end of the line for the Lovejoy trains.

The $45 million in earmarked money that remained could only be used for construction of the commuter rail line. Since local governments have been unable to come up with operating funds for a passenger rail system, the project stalled.

The Lovejoy line has never looked more viable than in the past week. Clayton commissioners voted Saturday to place a referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot for a 1 percent sales tax to fund public transportation. And a recent feasibility showed there is overwhelming public support for a tax to fund transit it Clayton.

MARTA pledged to use the money to provide bus service initially and to negotiate with Norfolk Southern, which owns the freight tracks where the passenger trains would run, to try to cooperate a commuter rail system in the future.

The penny sales tax (if approved by Clayton voters) is expected to raise about $47 million each year -- over $464 million over 10 years. Officials have said only about half that amount is needed to operate a bus system, and the rest could be used for rail or another high-capacity form of transit such as bus-rapid transit.

And MARTA could still seek additional funds from federal grant programs to aid in building a high-capacity transit line.

For those reasons, transit advocates say the loss of the appropriations is a disappointment, but not a deal-killer.

(c)2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

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