State drops trains in favor of buses

By Justin Reedy

The state will focus on road projects and an express bus system to deal with metro Atlanta's traffic problems, rather than a proposed commuter rail line that would run through the Southern Crescent.

Gov. Sonny Perdue recently announced the state's priorities for transportation spending in the metro area, which have shifted considerably from the administration of former Gov. Roy Barnes. Perdue also said he won't be taking out more than $800 million in controversial loans proposed under Barnes to fund transportation projects, instead relying on about $400 million in bonds approved by the state legislature.

Clayton and Henry counties will benefit from Perdue's transportation plans n both are included in the 11-county express bus system, and both will get funding for arterial road improvement projects. But a major component of Barnes' plans included a proposed Macon-to-Atlanta commuter rail line that would have passed through and had several stops within Clayton and Henry counties. That rail line could provide a big boost to the economy all over the south side, officials and business leaders say, but the project has been delayed yet again.

The commuter rail proposal is no longer one of the state's priorities, Perdue said, since it's too expensive and would take years to complete. It could eventually be funded by the state, he added, but cheaper transportation solutions that are quicker to implement should be the top priority during a lean budget period.

"We're looking for the biggest bang for our buck," Perdue said at a meeting of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, the state agency set up by Barnes to combat Atlanta's traffic and air quality problems. "If we built heavy rail at this time, the first rider would board it 10 or 12 years from now. We can't wait that long. We're going to find simple solutions that can be achieved in short periods of time."

Though the Southern Crescent will benefit from GRTA's express bus system and the state-funded arterial road improvement projects planned in the area, losing the Macon-to-Atlanta rail line for the near future could hurt development on the south side.

"There's just not enough money right now (for commuter rail)," said Clayton County Commission Chairman Crandle Bray, who is also chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, the metro area's planning agency. "It's disappointing in the sense that I think rail is key to the development of the south side, all the way to Macon."

With stops planned in Hampton, Lovejoy, Jonesboro, Morrow, Forest Park, and at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport in northern Clayton County, the rail line could have had positive effects on much of the Southern Crescent. Developments such as the Livable Centers Initiative in Forest Park, Gateway Village in Morrow and the downtown revitalization of Hampton had all been planned around the rail line.

"I think everyone's disappointed to hear that commuter rail appears to be dead, for a while, anyway," said Kay Pippin, the executive director of the Henry County Chamber of Commerce. "It has been especially disappointing for Henry County, because one of the stops would have been in the city of Hampton."

Hampton, with its storefronts and commuter-friendly housing, would have been a perfect fit for a rail stop, Pippin said.

"Commuter rail would definitely have opened up a new corridor for economic development in the state," she said. "It also would have provided traffic relief from the gridlock on the south side."

The rail line would have done more than just promote development along its length, though n if successful, it could help reduce Atlanta's road gridlock and improve air quality. That keeps people moving into the area, rather than moving to cities without such severe traffic and smog problems, according to Shane Moody, president of the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce.

"I hate to see anything that puts our commuter rail line on hold or delays the development of it any further," Moody said. "The commuter rail line coming from the south side of Atlanta would help reduce traffic on the interstate, because it would be a convenient way to get downtown, or to the airport."

But local officials can't see this as a stumbling block to redevelopment efforts along the proposed rail line, Moody said, since the project could be revived during better economic times.

"I hope (Clayton County) will go ahead with the redevelopment they had planned along the rail corridor, and not let this be another reason for them to delay any progress," Moody said.

In addition, Clayton County Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer, who is also chairman of the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority, is optimistic that the rail project will still be completed.

"We have not been told that commuter rail is off the radar screen," Rhodenizer said. "I hope it will proceed. No one has told us to stop working on it."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.