There's still hope for Atlanta-Lovejoy commuter rail

Thanks to discord in Washington, Georgia may get a reprieve for more than $80 million in federal earmarks that it won years ago for commuter rail.

Georgia won the earmarks to build a commuter rail line from Atlanta south through Lovejoy, but it has done little with them. That is now a problem.

Earlier this year, the head of a congressional committee told earmark holders: If the money is idle, we want it back. That spread fear among the Lovejoy line's supporters.

But the bill where Congress would deal with that, a six-year law for U.S. transportation spending, is running into obstacles. Namely, a very full plate in Washington. U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, who wrote the letter, wants to do the bill right away, but President Barack Obama wants to wait a year and a half and concentrate on health care and the environment for now.

That means if unused earmarks are going to be yanked, Georgia may have a year and a half to demonstrate it can make progress.

"I think the pressure about the earmarks is a little bit off," the director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, Chick Krautler, told the ARC board Wednesday.

Some commuter rail advocates cautioned the state should not rest easy.

"I'm going to work as if it's going to be shut off next month," said Eldrin Bell, chairman of the Clayton County Commission and a key advocate for the rail line.

Even in the next year, there's no silver bullet to solve the issue that's plagued the program so far: how to pay to operate the line once it's built. Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin told the ARC executive committee Wednesday that the state's hesitation to fund rail operations could endanger its ability to get federal grants for intercity rail.