County requests Atlanta-Lovejoy rail line

By Billy Corriher

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners is asking the state government to support a plan to construct the county's portion of the planned Atlanta to Macon commuter rail line. If approved, the Georgia Department of Transportation hopes to have the rail in operation by fall of 2006.

Though Gov. Sonny Perdue has not approved any additional funding for the line, the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority said they have enough funds to complete the rail from Atlanta to Lovejoy, with stops in Forest Park, Morrow and Jonesboro.

Jonesboro resident Amanda Roberts said she thinks completing the rail to Lovejoy would be "wonderful" for the county.

"It would help revitalize (Jonesboro's) downtown," she said.

Roberts said she would also like to see a commuter rail alleviate some traffic in the county.

"I'd love to ride a train instead of being in a car," she said.

The initial service from Atlanta to Lovejoy would only be "bare bones" service, said David Studstill, rail program manager for GDOT.

Studstill said the rail service would include four trips to Atlanta in the morning, and four back through Clayton County in the evening. Once that portion of the rail is up and running, the additional stations can be added all the way to Macon.

The GDOT said $87 million is already earmarked for upgrading train tracks and acquiring the cars. There is also money from GDOT for improving road crossings and for park and ride lots.

The GDOT proposal is projecting enough funding to cover maintenance and operating expenses until 2010, when help would have to come from either the state or local governments.

Finding funding past 2010 is the "big stumbling block" for the project, Studstill said.

State Rep. Gail Buckner, D-Jonesboro, said the Clayton County representatives would support state funding, but she warned that the state budget would remain tight next year.

"We'll just have to see what's happening when we get there," she said. "We can't give you any promises."

Dan McLagan, communications director for Perdue's office, agreed that this will be a "tough budget year" for the state.

McLagan said the governor's decision on funding rail projects will be laid out when Perdue's budget proposal is unveiled next year.

Doug Alexander, rail manager for the authority, said he is not enthusiastic that Perdue will endorse the proposal.

But Clayton County Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer, who also chairs the rail authority, said that the $5 million a year that would be required would be a "bargain" for the state.

Studstill said the rail would eventually have to move forward anyway, because of congestion on Interstate 75 and Interstate 85, and a reluctance to widen the highways.

"With the air quality laws the way they are now, it's awfully difficult to do any major widening of the roads," Studstill said.

Jonesboro and other municipalities are also banking on the rail as part of downtown revitalization projects.

U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta, recently procured funding for the city of Forest Park to study the revitalization of Main Street and the State Farmer's Market.

The rail line through the county presents a "tremendous opportunity" for development in the area, Scott said.

"We've got some really nice areas to grow around and develop in Clayton County."