County to join panel on transit

COVINGTON -- Newton County is joining the Regional Transit Committee in order to have input on transportation planning for the state.

A committee under the auspices of the Atlanta Regional Commission that will have governance over a regional-wide transit system, the RTC will weigh in on key transportation policy developments such as the Regional Transportation Plan, the next federal transportation authorization bill and action by the General Assembly on transportation funding legislation.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan will be Newton County's representative on the committee, which will meet monthly. All participating governments are required to pay a fee in order to be full voting members and fund operations of the RTC. Newton County's contribution will be $10,000 for the first year. Though the Board of Commissioners has approved participation, Morgan said she will not sign the contract until she has assurance the county will be able to opt out of what is now a three-year commitment or renew on an annual basis.

"I suggested to the board we participate this year to evaluate the discussion and plans and determine if it's something we might want to do in the future," Morgan said, noting that the participation fee is "like the ante at a poker game. It's in order to get a seat at the table and to hopefully influence some of the character of this board and what they do and how that might come back and affect our community."

One major transportation issue that will be discussed is a DOT-proposed commuter rail running from Atlanta to Augusta, she said. The location of the rail has not been determined, she said, but it will likely be near Interstate 20.

"Newton County will be one of the counties affected," she said. The proposed commuter rail is not tied to the county's consideration of purchasing 14.9 miles of the Norfolk Southern rail line running from Covington to Newborn.

However, a DOT representative has made reference publicly to a distribution center between Augusta and Atlanta with rail connection to Macon, Morgan said.

"There's only two places: Newton and Morgan, and we're both tied to (the Norfolk Southern) line," she said, but added she has not discussed the issue with the DOT. "At this time, I don't really see the benefit from allowing that to come into Newton County."

The federal government is asking states to look at mass transit on a larger scale in terms of moving people and freight, and the RTC is one attempt by Georgia officials to initiate planning in a more collaborative way.

Metro Atlanta counties with major transportation systems are participating, and Morgan said it's in Newton's best interest to get involved.

"We certainly don't want the counties of Atlanta making decisions about commuter rail running through Newton County or any other transportation," she said.

The RTC was formed in January to take the place of the Transit Implementation Board, previously known as the Transit Planning Board. The Transit Planning Board was established in 2006 under an agreement between ARC, the Georgia Department of Transportation, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.

As the RTC, the committee will undergo significant changes to its structures and procedures and will continue to work to develop a regional fare structure and payment process allowing riders to traverse the Atlanta region in a seamless, consistent manner, according to an ARC press release.