Railroad negotiations continue

By Michael Davis

While talks between the Georgia Department of transportation and the Norfolk Southern Railroad for use of its railroad tracks as a passenger system continue, rail transportation officials have dropped some of the locations they once proposed for station sites.

At a meeting of the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority Wednesday, project manager Steve Roberts told board members that all of the proposed station sites had been affected by development, "in one way or another."

The passenger rail line, part of an overall plan for service from Macon through Atlanta to Athens, would have four stops in Clayton County.

Officials expect the first phase of the line, from Atlanta to Lovejoy, to be open by September 2006. But some proposed station sites may have to be relocated or redesigned, Roberts said.

"That's what happens when you have a study and you have to wait around," said Doug Alexander, rail program manager for the authority.

The concept for a regional rail passenger system, GRPA chairman Carl Rhodenizer said, has been around since before the authority was formed in 1994. Alexander said original plans were to have the Athens-to-Atlanta-to-Macon line running by 2000.

That waiting around included waiting for approval of the state budget which officials had hoped would include funding to match federal grants that will be used for the project and cover operating costs.

Alexander said general obligation bonds approved by Gov. Sonny Perdue included the $4 million needed to move forward on the $109 million stretch to Lovejoy.

In March, the state transportation board voted to enter into negotiations with Norfolk Southern on use of the rails.

And though the talks between GDOT and the railroad are being closely guarded, Roberts said, "I remain optimistic."

"We should know something more from them within the next week or two," he added.

But in the meantime, some of the sites proposed for stations have been bought and developed, leaving rail officials looking at other options.

Roberts said the property eyed for the Lovejoy and Forest Park stations has been bought, though the Forest Park location, "hasn't been developed yet, so we may go back to the new owner."

The Aviation Boulevard site, officials said, would hopefully tie in to the new airport terminal but negotiations are still under way with Atlanta and airport officials. Roberts said the authority wants to ensure the Southern Crescent "is connected to the parking facilities" at the terminal, but the "obstacle is that 9,000 parking spaces will require a structure that is nine acres ? and the exact location has not been determined."

Original plans called for the first phase to run to Macon, including a stop in Hampton.

Rhodenizer said he hopes Henry County will get involved with the rail system as soon as possible.

The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority's XPress buses are scheduled to begin Hampton to Atlanta operation June 7 with a park-and-ride lot at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but Rhodenizer said buses are at the mercy of traffic. "Henry County doesn't realize it needs (rail transportation) today," he said.