Is commuter rail finally on track?

Tue, 05/20/2008 - 4:19pm
By: John Thompson

As gas prices rise and traffic congestion increases, residents are starting to look for other transportation options to get them back and forth to work. One option that has been bandied about for years is implementing a commuter rail system, and that effort may finally be getting closer to reality.

Late last month, the state Transportation Board voted to implement commuter rail service in Georgia. The board directed the Georgia DOT staff to move forward with the multimodal station and the Lovejoy commuter rail line. Lovejoy is about five miles east of Fayetteville in southern Clayton County.

Intermodal Committee Chairman Larry Walker said, “After visiting three cities, Chicago, Boston and New York, where I was able to see commuter rail play a pivotal role in reducing congestion, I see no other option but for us to move forward.”

“This is a significant move in the right direction and I appreciate Mr. Walker’s willingness to take on this issue and help in moving it forward,” said long-time board member and commuter rail advocate, Emory McClinton. “We only have to look at population growth, congestion and increasing gas prices to know that we have to stop talking about it and take steps to implement and operate a viable commuter rail system—the Lovejoy line is the beginning of this journey.”

While some officials are hopeful the line, located close to Fayette in adjoining Clayton County, could be up and running in 2009, DOT’s External Communications spokesman David Spear said many questions still have to be answered.

“We still have issues such as funding and signing contracts with the railroad companies, but this is a significant step in that direction,” he said.

The department has now created an intermodal programs division and is in the process of hiring a director to oversee new transportation options.

“Before we had told the various entities that you have to find a way to solve the problems. The new intermodal program director will now work on solving those problems with the government leaders,” Spear said.

A recent survey also indicates that many commuters in the Atlanta region want a transportation alternative. The survey of registered voters in the 11-county metro Atlanta area by the Transit Planning Board proved an overwhelming majority highly favored transit and are supportive of funding strategies that will make expanded regional bus and rail service a reality in the near future.

The survey showed 85 percent believed increased investment in public transportation would strengthen metro Atlanta’s economy, create jobs, reduce traffic congestion, air pollution and fuel consumption; 80 percent agreed that metro Atlanta needed to continue funding road construction, but also needed to spend additional money on new public transportation options and 74 percent agreed that their community needed more transportation options like commuter rail service, light rail, buses and trolleys.

Of 301 Fayette residents polled in the survey, 50 percent of respondents said they’d favor a one-cent regional sales tax to fund rail and bus service. Another 44 percent said they opposed such a plan.

The sales tax idea was not approved by the General Assembly this year, but Spear is hopeful that may change.

“I think they just ran out of time,” he said.

Earlier this year, Fayette County Commission Chairman Jack Smith said other transportation options need to be available for residents.

“I think it’s important for Fayette’s residents to have access to reasonably available mass transit,” Smith said.

Instead, Smith believes the focus should be more on rail and focusing on existing commuter patterns. For instance, Smith believes a rail line should run south down Interstate 85 with stops in Union City and Newnan.

“I think the existing plan relies too heavily on buses. We need to offer folks a better way,” he said.

Because of Fayette’s affluence, Smith believes the key for residents to use mass transit is the time factor.

“We have to show residents how this could save them some time. If they could drive to a park and ride lot in Newnan or Jonesboro and save time, they would use it,” he said.

Instead of using existing railroad right of ways for new tracks, Smith advocates looking at the commuter patterns and placing the rail lines there.

“It might be cheaper now to use those existing right of ways, but freight predictions show those lines are going to be even more travelled, and we could end up having to lose the use of those rights of way,” he said.

While some questions still have to be answered on commuter rail, Spear believes the state is headed in the right direction.

“We still have some issues, but the creation of the intermodal division will help us move more quickly in solving those problems.”

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