Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Commuter rail back on track?

Note to self: Never declare anything dead. This will be on our main site shortly, but I thought I'd throw the basics up here:

A Georgia Department of Transportation committee has recommended establishing a commuter rail line from downtown Atlanta to the metro suburb of Lovejoy in a nod, albeit a preliminary one, back in the direction of making Macon's long-discussed passenger rail connection to Atlanta a reality.

The Macon-Atlanta route has been considered all-but-dead by all but its most vehement supporters. But if the full DOT board follows the recommendation of its intermodal committee, headed by former Perry state Rep. and current DOT board member Larry Walker, the idea could get new life.

The Wednesday vote in Atlanta leaves a lot of questions unanswered, particularly how the state will pay to complete the line, much less cover operating costs. But Walker called the recommendation "a step in the right direction" and said he's hearing "more vocal support" for commuter rail.

Part of that support may be due to the Lovejoy project's pairing with another proposed commuter line — one that has received a lot of high-profile lobbying in the last six months. The so-called Brain Train to connect Atlanta to the University of Georgia in Athens would also get a head-start under the proposal recommended Wednesday. Walker said the committee's resolution pairs the two projects, recommending one line be built to Lovejoy south of Atlanta and another to Tucker, which is an Atlanta suburb on the way to Athens.

Walker said he'll take the proposal before the full DOT board, which sets transportation priorities in Georgia, tomorrow. The board may not vote right away, but Walker said he thinks he has the votes he needs to get it passed.

Still, it would take action by the Georgia General Assembly to move forward. There's about $87 million in federal money already in place to open the Lovejoy line, but the federal earmark can only be used on that particular line. That means it would take a General Assembly vote to appropriate more money for the Lovejoy project — which planners have said would likely be needed — as well as funding for the Tucker line.

There's also the issue of ongoing funding to make up the expected difference between what it costs to operate these lines and what passengers will pay. Various talks between the state and local governments along the Lovejoy line have yet to yield a binding agreement on this issue.

"The issue, as in everything, is what's the cost," Macon state Rep. Allen Peake said. "Not only the up-front money, but also on an ongoing basis. ... And how many people are really going to use it?"

"I still think there's just a lot of questions, even though in theory I would love to have some rapid rail from Macon to Atlanta," Peake, R-Macon, said.

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