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Rail project deals with opposition on both ends

By Justin Boron

As pockets of opposition emerge in Henry County, trouble may also be brewing for the commuter rail at the other end of the tracks in Atlanta.

Recent criticism of the rail's use of railroad beneath the former Atlanta Constitution building threatens to sandwich with opposition a project that transportation officials have relentlessly painted with optimism in its more than a decade of planning.

The renewed opposition on either end of the rail also comes at a time when transit officials say they have reached an agreement in principle with Norfolk Southern for the use of its cars and operating services. The contract, which is being hashed out by the attorney general, brings the rail to a pivotal crossroads in its realization after rail planners grappled with dozens of contingencies and bureaucratic hurdles.

The first segment of the rail, slated to begin fall 2006, would drop off passengers right where historic preservationists don't want – the site of an almost 60-year-old building.

Beginning in 1948, The Atlanta Constitution and Georgia Power inhabited the now ramshackle and windowless shell that rises up six stories over Alabama Street.

Georgia Department of Transportation plans to demolish it to build a platform station that would eventually be expanded into a multi-modal hub, said Bert Brantley, a spokesman for the agency.

But Boyd Coons, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center, said he hopes the building's unique architecture doesn't end up that way.

In 2003, the preservation group put the building on its list of endangered places in Atlanta.

"We've been terribly upset about that for some time," Coons said.

Now, he said the preservation group is trying to rally national historic protection agencies to block the project.

On metro Atlanta's south side, Rep. Steve Davis also has rebuffed the idea of commuter rail, saying the money should be used on road and highway improvements. He also has said the rail could cost more than anticipated.

Rep. John Yates, who represents Hampton where there is opposition to the rail, has sought to allay the concerns with a letter of his own support for the rail.

"Mr. Davis is a friend of mine, colleague in the House," he said. "I don't believe he understands, his idea he wants to save money on rail so he can us it for highways. It just doesn't work that way in federal government."

Amid the opposition, transportation officials are holding strong.

Carl Rhodenizer, the chairman of the Georgia Passenger Rail Authority and a Clayton County commissioner, said nothing is going to stop the train.

"I'm tired of hearing of all this stuff of trying to put a stop or a major slowdown to a major project," he said.

A lot is riding on the rail, Rhodenizer said, including several redevelopment plans in the county and the viability of the new international terminal planned at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Rhodenizer said he doesn't think the Constitution building will be much of a stumbling block for the rail.

The transportation department, Brantley said, is considering ways to preserve the name and memory of the Atlanta newspaper.

But he said demolishing it is necessary for the project.

"We just need that property," he said. "It's just in the way at the end of the day."

Coons disagrees, saying the transportation department could integrate the station into the building by rehabilitating it.

He also said the transportation department has been intractable on the idea for eliminating the structure.

Brantley said transit officials fulfilled all the necessary requirements and environmental studies to demolish it.