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Commuter rail forum stimulates debate

By Ed Brock

As far as Malcolm Goss was concerned, all the charts and statistics he heard at Saturday's forum on a proposed commuter rail through Henry County didn't stack up against his personal experience.

During a recent trip Goss took from his home in Hampton to Dahlonega for a funeral, I-75/85 and Ga. Highway 400 in Atlanta were "a parking lot."

"MARTA was going through there at 70 mph. It was full," Goss said. "You cannot tell me that the rail system isn't going to take the congestion off the highway."

State Rep. Steve Davis, R-McDonough, defended his position at the forum, and the position of the expert he had brought in from Oregon with those charts and statistics, that commuter rail is not the answer to Henry County's traffic congestion.

"I believe you believe what you're saying," Davis said. "I also believe we've just been shown the data, the facts and figures, that dispute that."

It was one of many concerns voiced at Davis' forum at the Henry County School Administration Building in McDonough. The initial phase of the commuter rail will run through Clayton County, with stops in Forest Park and Jonesboro before terminating in Lovejoy. Eventually it may be expanded through Henry County and as far as Macon.

As the crowd of Henry and Clayton county residents debated the proposed Lovejoy-Atlanta commuter rail project, the streets outside were already clogged with people trying to get to the Geranium Festival in nearby McDonough Square.

At the same time, more people were driving into the county for a regional soccer meet, said Roy Clack, director of the Henry County Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, part of which is dedicated to funding transportation projects. The situation highlighted the central issue that all the participants in the forum were there to address.

"When you bring all these people into the county and you have the Geranium Festival at the same time, it does impact our transportation system," Clack said.

On one side of the issue were rail supporters Clack, William Mecke, a spokesman for the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and David Studstill, Georgia Department of Transportation chief engineer.

The commuter rail was one of several options intended to reduce traffic congestion and, most importantly, to bring the Atlanta metro area into compliance with federal air quality guidelines.

"If we can give people an alternative, that works in our favor," Mecke said. "We need a good combination (of transportation options, such as highway expansion and public transportation) and we need a lot of everything."

Studstill said GDOT is considering commuter rail as an alternative, because, for one reason, it offers consistent commuter time. For example, from Lovejoy to downtown Atlanta the rail would take 45 minutes. Currently that's slower than commuting by car, a 30-minute ride during peak hours.

But, in the future, that car trip could be as long as an hour and a half, Studstill said. And simply expanding highways isn't going to work, Studstill said.

He said that on one strip of I-285 north of Atlanta traversed by 250,000 vehicles a day the roadway would have to be expanded to 26 lanes to relieve the congestion.

"We're thinking it's going to take everything we can do, pulling out all the stops, to bring the congestion down," Studstill said.

Libertarian Party members Jason Pye of McDonough and Doug Craig of Hampton questioned Mecke. Craig asked if there was any proof that public transportation reduced pollution and used less fuel.

"A bus with 50 people on it burns less fuel than 50 cars," Mecke said.

Pye, who said he believes free market industry is always more efficient than government, pointed out that public transportation systems always have to be subsidized by tax dollars.

That's true of all transportation systems, Mecke responded.

"Just because the road is already there doesn't mean the road is free," Mecke said.

Siding with Davis in opposing the rail were state Sen. John Douglas, R-Covington, a spokesman for Henry County District II Commissioner Elizabeth "B.J." Mathis, Hampton City Councilman Ed Hendry and Randal O'Toole, senior economist with the Thoreau Institute in Oregon.

O'Toole, the keynote speaker for the forum, is the author of "The Vanishing Automobile and other Urban Myths," in which he debunks the use of commuter rail across the country. He started his presentation by saying he was a "rail nut" who preferred riding trains to driving.

"If rail transit worked, I'd probably be the first to endorse it," O'Toole said. "The fact is rail transit hasn't worked anywhere in the United States except for New York."

O'Toole said he had studied rail systems in cities around the country and found that each one was too expensive and under-used by the population. In his presentation, he listed cities such as Los Angeles and San Jose in California and even Chicago that has an established rail system.

The extra cost of commuter rail usually results in cuts to the city's bus service, a form of transportation that O'Toole said is more efficient. Even in Europe, where a reliable train service exists, a majority of people prefer to drive instead.

Only Japan and Hong Kong have rail systems that pay for themselves, O'Toole said.

As an alternative, O'Toole suggested a system similar to one implemented by Las Vegas, a city he said was growing twice as fast as Atlanta. The system there is called a bus rapid transit system that uses a series of buses that run as frequently as trains, is run by a private company and costs the city less.

"Bus rapid transit makes a lot more sense," O'Toole said.

During a heated exchange with Jim Dexter, vice president of the Georgia Association of Railroad Passengers, O'Toole admitted that he hadn't reviewed the specific proposal for the Lovejoy-Atlanta commuter rail.

"I'd be willing to," O'Toole said.

He added that he didn't have to see the proposal to know the rail system wouldn't work.

In other arguments, Davis said the state only has $87 million of the $106 million cost of the project, and the proposed methods for making up the $19 million difference may violate constitutional restrictions.

"It's like a shell game," Davis said. "They're playing with the figures to make it work, to make it legal."

In a statement, Mathis called the rail "a luxury item that Henry County cannot afford at this time."

Davis opened the forum by addressing a recent Daily Herald article in which the Henry County Chamber of Commerce and its Chairman of the Board Greg Hammonds blasted the forum as being biased to rail opponents.

In that article Hammonds said the chamber refused to attend the forum.

He invited Hammonds, members of the Atlanta Regional Commission and other rail supporters to attend the forum, Davis said.

"They have chosen not to participate," Davis said.

Hammonds had committed to come to the forum, Davis said, but when informed that he may be the only rail supporter there because the others had backed out, Hammonds then decided not to attend.

"I just think it's strange that if this is such a fabulous investment that they wouldn't come out and defend their position," Davis said.

In a separate interview Hammonds said he was "disappointed" in Davis' position and added that Davis was alienating officials at GDOT who can direct funds to Henry County.

Work on the rail project has been ongoing for 15 years, Hammonds said.

"This is not a project that somebody just woke up one day and dreamed up," Hammonds said. "It's by no means the magic silver bullet that will solve everybody's problems. There are a lot of things that have to happen with it."

Davis also said he had good news for rail opponents. He said he had spoken with GDOT Commissioner Harold Linnenkohl and learned that the September 2006 start date for the rail line was "no longer attainable," and there is no start date.

Henry County Director of Public Works Terry McMickle and Georgia Rep. John Lunsford, R-McDonough, also spoke at the forum. Several members of the "Jonesboro Pride" group attended the forum.