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Lovejoy project a hope for rail

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Lovejoy project a hope for rail

But after many years of study, skepticism still rampant about commuter trains

By DUANE D. STANFORD

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Twenty years after the state began enticing traffic-weary commuters with visions of speedy trains zipping them from suburb to city, Georgia has yet to buy its first locomotive or open its first mile of track.

Since the 1990s, the state has spent $10 million studying and planning a proposed commuter rail system that has yet to capture the imaginations of state budget makers. So far, officials have been unwilling to fund the next step in the evolution of the $2.1 billion program -- construction.

But rail advocates hope a last-ditch proposal to build a scaled-down test line to Lovejoy in Clayton County will jump-start the stalled program.

The state Department of Transportation has asked Gov. Sonny Perdue for permission to build and open the line by mid-2006. If the governor rejects the proposal, commuter rail advocates worry the blow would be difficult to overcome.

"I think it would be a tragic mistake for the state of Georgia if we don't do something on commuter rail right now," said Rep. Doug Stoner (D-Smyrna), who serves on the state Legislature's Commuter Rail Oversight Committee. "I think people would look back 20 years from now and say, 'What were they thinking?' "

State Transportation Commissioner Harold Linnenkohl wants to spend $106 million in federal and state funds already on hand to build a 26-mile commuter rail line from Atlanta to Lovejoy, with stops in Forest Park, Morrow and Jonesboro. It is part of a planned line to Griffin that at one time was scheduled to be opened this year.

Linnenkohl said the Lovejoy line could begin carrying commuters within 2 1/2 years.

Environmental and other required studies for the line, which eventually could go to Macon, have been completed. All that's left is construction, transportation officials said.

Perdue spokeswoman Loretta Lepore said the governor is reviewing the Lovejoy proposal. Linnenkohl needs Perdue's support because the state would have to kick in money long-term to run the train line.

"There's a question as to the operational funds," said a cautious Lepore. "That's primarily because the budget is just very tight."

The Lovejoy line would cost the state about $25 million to operate through 2009. Linnenkohl wants to use federal funds set aside for transportation projects that help reduce smog and traffic congestion. The funds, eligible for use on any number of proposed projects in the region, would have to be budgeted by the governor and the state Legislature.

Even though additional operating funds wouldn't be needed until 2010, Linnenkohl said the Federal Transit Administration will want to see a plan for how operations will be funded long-term before it would allow the state to build the line with federal funds.

Local governments that stand to benefit from economic development along the rail line also will be asked to contribute.

The federal funds set aside for the Lovejoy line can't be spent elsewhere, and officials have about three years to use the money or Georgia loses it.

"If we are going to seriously look at commuter rail in this state, here's a good test," Linnenkohl said.

On freight track

The Lovejoy line would operate on freight track owned by Norfolk Southern Railroad. Linnenkohl's proposal calls for upgrading the carrier's track in return for a lease that will allow commuter trains to share the line. How much that will cost is unknown.

Norfolk Southern is ready to deal, but the railroad wants a commitment from Perdue before it will spend time negotiating, said Joel Harrell, the railroad's Georgia lobbyist.

"We are available and willing to sit down and talk to them and try to move this thing along," he said.

Last week, politicians from counties and cities along the proposed rail line threw together an impromptu meeting with rail advocates to begin lobbying for Linnenkohl's proposal.

Clayton County Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer helped organize the meeting. He also sits on the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority, created nearly 20 years ago to manage the state's proposed commuter rail system. He dismissed the notion that a "no" from Perdue now would set the commuter rail program back years.

"That might be overstating it a little bit, because we all know there's a lot of financial pressure on the state that might not be there next year," he said. "Personally, I think he's going to find a way to do it."

Opposition to the plan may be coming from the 4-year-old Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, which left commuter rail out of a Regional Transit Action Plan for metro Atlanta intended to create a "seamless" public transit system through 2030.

Authority spokesman William Mecke said commuter rail was not included in the plan because it stretches beyond the 13 metro Atlanta counties where air quality falls below federal standards. Commuter rail is being studied separately by other agencies, he pointed out.

The agency is instead focused on developing a metrowide express bus system, which includes a route between Lovejoy and Atlanta. The authority has asked for operating money for the system from the same pot of air quality and traffic congestion money Linnenkohl wants to tap for the proposed Lovejoy commuter rail line.

Multicar buses

Even more important to the authority's long-term transit plan is an emerging concept called Bus Rapid Transit, which relies on multicar buses strung together like trains. They work best using dedicated lanes separated by concrete barriers, but they also could be used in HOV lanes. Bus rapid transit is being considered for the congested I-75 corridor between Atlanta and Marietta.

The authority's projects will compete with commuter rail for passengers and operating funds.

Perdue, who has direct control of the regional transportation authority, has endorsed bus rapid transit while expressing doubt that commuter rail can produce as much "bang for the buck."

The authority estimates an Atlanta-to-Cobb bus rapid transit line would handle 40,000 to 50,000 boardings a day and cost as much as $1.5 billion to develop. The Lovejoy commuter rail line is expected to carry many fewer riders -- about 3,000 a day by 2009.

While he said he does not oppose bus rapid transit, Stoner questioned the authority's ridership numbers, saying there is no precedent for such high estimates. And if the numbers did pan out, Stoner added, maintenance and operating costs would be a difficult burden to bear.

"Half of transit is labor costs," said Stoner. "It takes less people to run the commuter rail line."

Stoner added that ridership numbers on the Lovejoy line would increase as new routes were added and the system offered more options.

"I have no doubt it will be a success," he said of the Lovejoy line.

Too much, too few

But Wendell Cox, a transportation consultant and demographer who has studied public transit systems for years, said commuter rail exhausts too many resources to benefit too few people. Georgia's program is no exception, he said.

"Commuter rail is exceedingly expensive, and it doesn't take anybody off the road," said Cox, laughing at estimates by Georgia rail planners that the Lovejoy line will handle 770,000 riders a year by 2009. "This isn't going to make the slightest difference at all."

Clayton area residents interviewed last week were generally open to commuter rail, even if they were spooked by the line's fares.

A one-way ticket for the 46-minute trip between Lovejoy and Atlanta would cost $5.60, transportation officials estimate. That fare would drop to $4.50 with a monthly pass.

"It's too expensive," said commuter Valerie Geddis, who lives a few miles south of Lovejoy in Hampton. "That's 10, 11 dollars each day."

Commutes by car

Geddis, 43, drives her 1997 Toyota Corolla daily from Hampton to Atlanta, where she works as a courtroom deputy at the federal Court of Appeals.

Geddis once tried using the MARTA rail system from College Park but decided it was too expensive and took too much time. She said she's not inclined to try commuter rail, even if her drive can stretch from between 45 minutes on good days to an hour and a half on bad days.

Bill Harris, also of Hampton, agreed the commuter rail fare seemed steep. But the 36-year-old mortgage underwriter said the worry-free commute to his job in Atlanta would be worth the expense.

"I think it will take a lot of stress off coming to work," he said. "I would probably end up riding it if it was available."

Rita Tukes, 38, of Jonesboro recently joined a Clean Air Campaign program that pays commuters $60 a month to carpool. She said it saves her some time but not enough.

Tukes is an administrative assistant for BellSouth, and her office soon will be moved from North Druid Hills Road to downtown Atlanta, where she will pay $55 a month to park.

By the time she factors in gas and wear to her car, Tukes figures commuter rail will be a viable alternative, especially given the fact she would be able to "leave the driving to someone else."

"I wouldn't knock it," she said.

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How does it relate to the potential commuter train plans to Macon?

This is the line to Macon, well, half of it. They probably would look at extending the line to Macon some time down the road after it's success.

This article does bring up a somewhat valid point, even though they didn't really know how to touch on it. I think Commuter Rail is only going to be somewhat successful in Atlanta for one main reason: the rest of the transit system commuter rail will tie into is very limited in terms of destinations. I wonder if they are right, that prehaps some BRT/LRT expansion should occur before, or at least at the same time, to help make commuter rail more successful. Also, without extending commuter rail all the way to Macon, it also seems foolish to start with the southern burbs. The northern burbs, NE corridor specifically, seems like a better place to spend this kind of money.

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