Rail project still on track, officials say

By Justin Boron

The Southern Crescent commuter rail scheduled to make its first trip in 2006 may get held up in the property acquisition phase if contractors for the project cannot settle on locations for Lovejoy and Jonesboro stops.

The initial tracts of property intended for stations in the two cities were ruled out as possible sites amid shifting development, causing the project managers to reconfigure their plans for the two stops' locations.

Initially, the Jonesboro station was to be located north of downtown. However, the push to revitalize the city's central business district has spurred a desire to place the station in the town's center, next to the old train depot, said Christopher Kingsbury, an engineer for Moreland Altobelli Associates, the company handling the project's property acquisition.

A platform extending north of the existing depot would be constructed to allow passengers to board and depart at the city's welcome center and visitor's bureau, City Manager Jon Walker said.

Despite across-the-board support for the downtown location, Walker said the area's parking constraints may play a larger role in the placement of Jonesboro's commuter station.

Lack of adequate parking facilities could preclude the city from placing the station downtown since the area's limited access may not support the 484 passengers that planners anticipate will board at Jonesboro by 2009.

To resolve the parking inefficiency, a proposed parking deck on Mill Street has been planned, Walker said.

But he said it may not be complete in time for the rail's start date in 2006, in which case the city would resort to contingencies in the parking area's behind the Clayton County mental health center and Arts Clayton, Inc.

Lovejoy Station

Hopes to obtain a Lovejoy tract at Tara Boulevard and Hastings Bridge Road, which would support an estimated 645 passengers, dissipated after a developer purchased the land, Kingsbury said.

Moreland Altobelli Associates are considering two other tracts. One at Lovejoy City Hall and another at Tara Boulevard and Lovejoy Road,

Lovejoy Mayor Joe Murphy said he believes the tract on Lovejoy Road would provide ample parking and accessibility.

"I think they should keep the rail terminal closer to Tara Boulevard to give it more visibility," he said.

Project Progresses despite Public Skepticism

The stations' changes in location have raised doubts over the project's progress as planners prepare for property acquisition set to begin in 2005.

Kingsbury noted the reality gap felt by citizens, who support the idea of rail, but worry it may never come into fruition.

The public uncertainty has prompted county officials to call for the cities to cooperate with Moreland Altobelli to quell rumors of the rail project's demise by demonstrating a "strong commitment" to purchase land.

"I'd like to see us commit to buy land," said County Commission Chairman Crandle Bray. "The more rumors out there, the more the price keeps going up."

Representatives from all of the cities involved in the project met with planners Monday in Jonesboro to dispel mutterings about a possible collapse in the project's momentum.

During a brief on the status of the commuter rail, Kingsbury repeatedly asserted optimism for the project, saying the two setbacks in station location were not a pervasive problem.

"Generally we're on target with the sites we picked a couple of years ago," he said.