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Commuter rail plans moving forward

By Billy Corriher

Democratic leaders in the state House said they plan to put $5 million in next year's budget to pay for operating costs for a planned commuter rail line, but the lawmakers are anxious to get the line running from Atlanta to Macon instead of stopping at Lovejoy.

The state Department of Transportation has said it only has $106 million, enough to buy the equipment and upgrade the tracks to Lovejoy, and it still needs funding for the line's operations.

But many members of the House leadership team are from areas south of Atlanta and are eager to kick off commuter-rail service from Atlanta all the way to Macon.

In a meeting last week with Democratic lawmakers, Amtrak executives and state transportation officials, House speaker Terry Coleman criticized the DOT for moving too slowly on passenger rail and limiting the scope of initial plans to Lovejoy.

Coleman, D-Eastman, has the backing of numerous Democratic legislators who want the trains to go farther south and travel faster.

"If the train is just to Lovejoy, it's seen as just another Atlanta project," said Rep. Tommy Smith, D-Alma, chairman of the State Planning and Community Affairs Committee. "If you put Macon on the table, it generates a lot more interest in the Legislature."

But Doug Alexander, rail manager for the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority, said the total cost to extend the rail to Macon would be $351 million, which would be hard to come by in the state's tight budget.

"We're not going to get $351 million out of anybody," he said. "What we're trying to work out now is an incremental approach."

Alexander said the rail authority is coming up with a concrete plan for extending the line to Macon after it's running to Lovejoy. The rail authority is still waiting for a decision from Gov. Sonny Perdue on whether or not he will approve the DOT's proposal to run the line to Lovejoy.

"(Perdue's) concerns have mainly been about operating costs," said Perdue spokeswoman Loretta Lepore, adding that the governor is now waiting to see if the budget passes the state legislature with the $5 million in operating costs.

Clayton County Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer, who is also chairman of the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority, said he thinks local cities and counties will ultimately have to fund the rail's operation. Rhodenizer said the authority would look into having Fulton County also help with the costs, since the line would run from Atlanta.

"It's not just a Clayton County project," he said, adding that the proposal needs to get off the ground soon or the DOT risks losing federal funding.

Forest Park and Jonesboro are already putting together plans to revitalize their downtown areas with projects that center around a commuter rail station.

Ellenwood resident Tim Kitchens said he supports a rail line from Atlanta to Lovejoy because it would help with traffic and would be advantageous for communities in Clayton County.

"The first step with the commuter line from Atlanta to Lovejoy would certainly do quite a bit for Lovejoy and Forest Park," he said.

Plans call for the trains to run about every half-hour, with stops in East Point, Forest Park, Morrow and Jonesboro. The trains would travel around 60 mph and would make the trip from Atlanta to Lovejoy in about 46 minutes. If the DOT's plan is approved, the rail line could be operational by fall 2006.

The State Transportation Board's Intermodal Committee, at its March 17 meeting, will consider a resolution to begin negotiations with Norfolk Southern to operate the line.

Alexander said other companies would also want to bid on operating the lines, including Amtrak, which has received support from Democratic leaders in the House. But Alexander said Norfolk Southern might have more leverage because they already own the rail lines.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.