By Maria Saporta
Georgia’s continued lack of progress on building a commuter rail line towards Griffin is costing the state millions in lost stimulus dollars.
Unless the state acts quickly to get the project moving, it is extremely vulnerable to losing the $87 million federal funds already allocated to the project.
Those are two concerns expressed by U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Georgia) earlier this week in an interview after speaking at the Kiwanis Club of Atlanta.
“I can’t stress to you the urgency to move on this,” Scott said. “I’m so fearful that they are going to ask for that money back. The state has got to come to the table. It’s going to take leadership.”
Scott, who described Gov. Sonny Perdue as a friend and “a good decent guy,” expressed great disappointment that the governor hasn’t grasped the implications of not acting on commuter rail.
“If it’s not used, that money will go away,” Scott said. “And we are losing additional stimulus money by not moving forward. We have lost $16 million because this wasn’t moving.”
Scott also said this project is much more that just a line between downtown Atlanta and Lovejoy.
A line to Lovejoy easily could be extended to Hampton and the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“I think the way to the future is Bruton Smith, who owns the raceway in Hampton,” Scott said. “You’ve got 300,000 NASCAR fans. This will be an economic generator.
Clayton Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, speaking to me before Wednesday’s monthly meeting of the Transit Implementation Board, echoed Scott’s concerns.
One of the big issues has been for the state providing the local match for those federal funds. At one point, it was thought the state had those dollars in hand, but with the financial issues at the Georgia Department of Transportation, it seems those dollars have evaporated.
But Bell said Clayton has sufficient amount of T-Splost dollars to provide the local match. He would be willing to provide those $30 million as part of an exchange similar to what the Atlanta Regional Commission did to help MARTA cover a $25 million in operating shortfall.
“It would be a means to provide for the local match and prevent the state of Georgia from losing that rail money and having to give it back to the federal government,” Bell said.
Scott and Bell, along with leaders in the city of Atlanta and in the south metro area, have been pushing for this commuter rail line for more than a decade. Georgia’s inaction also threatens the state’s future funding, Bell said.
“My longterm concern is that we don’t use that money, it’s going to be more difficult for Congressman Scott and others to get more federal money in the future,” Bell said. “I have pleaded with the Georgia Department of Transportation and will continue to do so to make sure we can make this happen. I’m going to my state legislators and requesting that they get involved.”
For both Bell and Scott, it’s not just about easing Atlanta’s transportation quagmire or providing alternatives to the automobile.
“It’s about econcomic development and the future of the Southside,” Bell said. “It’s about investing in the future.”