Rail travel inches closer to reality

By Billy Corriher

Riding a train to work may be inching a little closer to reality for local commuters.

The State Transportation Board voted on Thursday to begin negotiations with Norfolk Southern to develop a commuter rail line from Atlanta to Lovejoy, with stops in East Point, Forest Park, Jonesboro, Morrow, and on Aviation Boulevard.

Emory McClinton, chairman of the board's intermodal committee, said he wanted the line established to Lovejoy so it could eventually be extended to Macon, as it was originally planned. If approved, the rail line could by operation by fall 2006.

McClinton said the board wanted to move forward with the line to Lovejoy even though Gov. Sonny Perdue has not indicated if he will approve the project.

"The governor has not said no," he said.

But he hasn't said yes, either.

Dana Lemon, who represents Clayton County on the transportation board, said she thinks most of Perdue's concerns about the line have been addressed.

The DOT has $106 million to buy equipment and upgrade the railroad tracks, but Perdue has expressed concern about who will pay for the operating costs, projected to be around $5 million a year.

Loretta Lepore, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Perdue wants to know where Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives intend to get the funding they're seeking for the operating costs.

"The governor wants to make sure that, in these tight budget times, we know where this funding would come from," she said. "He would also like to know that there's funding long-term for the operating costs."

The mayors of Jonesboro, Morrow, Lake City, Lovejoy and East Point recently met with Perdue and agreed to help with the operating costs.

Jonesboro Mayor Joy Day said how much the cities and the county might pay has not been determined.

Day said the rail line would be a great investment for Jonesboro, which is working on a plan to revitalize its downtown area around a commuter rail station.

"The rail will certainly bring a lot of growth to the area," she said.

Day said the line would also help with traffic congestion.

"I see (the rail line) as an alternative to our crowded highways," she said.

Jonesboro resident Vicki Smith said she would love to be able to take a train to Atlanta instead of driving. And Smith said she thinks the rail line will bring a lot of people into the city.

"It's the only way we're gonna bring people into town to spend money," she said. "It's the first step toward getting Jonesboro's commerce booming."