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Commuter rail supports look to Amtrak for hope

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Amtrak has designated a Southeastern high speed rail line, stretching from Charlotte, N.C. through Atlanta and Macon, to Jacksonville, Fla., a "high priority."

Looking at the designation, regional supporters of metro-Atlanta's proposed commuter-rail line hope the national passenger train company could come in, bolster, and push the local effort.

Georgians for the Brain Train is looking at ways to link Amtrak's proposed high speed line, and its funding, with the commuter rail. The group considers a partnership as one of the ways the rail could become a reality after languishing for years, according to spokesman Paul Snyder.

Mac Collins, the former Republican congressman who has been working with commuter rail supporters, said the local rail effort might realize gains from turning to Amtrak.

"I think there's a good possibility, in fact, that Amtrak could be engaged," Collins said. "There are areas of the country that have set up a commuter rail and there are places you can go for a lot of ideas."

Steve Kuni, a consultant with Rail South LLC, which is closely tied to the National Association of Rail Passengers, said Georgia ought to look to North Carolina for an example of a successful rail service. It was formed with an Amtrak partnership. Local governments partnered with Amtrak, in North Carolina, and Amtrak contracted with Norfolk Southern (NS), to run the Amtrak trains on the NS lines.

"Amtrak is involved with just about every major commuter system in the United States," Kuni said. "It may not have 'Amtrak on the locomotive, but Amtrak is an administrative, or operative position within that service."

Currently, Amtrak runs lines from Washington to Miami through Charlotte, and from Charlotte to Birmingham, Ala. through Atlanta. They have designated the need for a connecting corridor between Atlanta and Jacksonville, through Macon and Jesup, Ga., Kuni said. "The corporation's planners believe that the corridor, connecting the two existing lines, has "all kinds of commercial viability," Kuni said. "I've had them tell me, 'If we can get this train running, it would be tough to get a ticket on it," said Kuni.

A 2005 Amtrak report shows that Georgia passenger trains have consistently posted solid increases in traffic. That same year, an Amtrak study forecast in 2025, a southeastern high speed corridor rail line could carry between 378,000 and 930,000 passengers a year.

If Amtrak does move into the metro-Atlanta area, partnering with the corporation could hold significant promise for the commuter rail, Kuni said. He argues the advantages with Amtrak are "multi-fold."

Amtrak already has an operating agreement with Norfolk Southern, so no new operating agreement would have to be negotiated. Amtrak has liability insurance, the infrastructure for marketing and ticketing, and "knows how to get the money," Kuni said. It already has the needed operating experience, he added.

"Any other approach," Kuni said, "is reinventing the wheel. [Amtrak] can instruct GDOT from the cradle to the grave on how to do this, and Norfolk Southern will sign off on it."

At this point, however, the Georgia Department of Transportation is not interested in working with Amtrak, said spokesman Mark McKinnon.

Though the department's studies are looking at "best options" and could consider an Amtrak arrangement, negotiations have, so far, been with Norfolk Southern.

"We're not considering any agreements with Amtrak," McKinnon said. "Amtrak uses the Norfolk Southern line so we wouldn't negotiate with them, we would [go directly to Norfolk Southern]."

However, GDOT has worked with Amtrak before, while looking at the need for a rail line from Atlanta to Macon.

In May 2004, Amtrak, GDOT and the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority jointly released a study analyzing the possibility of a new, high-speed line between Macon and Charlotte, which would connect to continuing service in the Washington D.C. to Boston corridor. The study found the southeastern corridor "is part of a rapidly growing corridor with a very good market potential." The drawback found in the study was the need for improving the 130-year-old rail lines, flattening hills and straightening curves so the high-speed train could travel speeds of 79 to 110 miles per hour. Between Atlanta and Macon, however, the improvements would be needed for both the high-speed and the commuter rail traffic.

Even if the state doesn't consider a partnership with Amtrak to launch the commuter line, Kuni said he believes that Amtrak is still necessary and believes county and city governments along the rail line could bypass the state to get the partnership.

"Formulate a plan for a multi-jurisdictional transit rail council," Kuni said. "Then, they can cut their own deal with Amtrak. If the counties would do that, it would show that the Department of Transportation is the emperor with no clothes."

It is possible that the end-run around GDOT already is underway. Georgians for the Brain Train is planning a summit, sometime in the spring, for all the governmental authorities along the rail line.

Snyder said the goal of the summit would be to reach an agreement on a funding mechanism -- something all the counties and cities will sign and present to the state legislature. There are only a few degrees of distance, Kuni points out, between co-signing a proposal for a special tax district and signing to form a council with the authority to negotiate.

In a policy paper Kuni submitted to GDOT's Intermodal Planning Committee, earlier this year when the commuter rail was headed for a "live-or-die vote," he suggested the real problems in launching the line are political, not practical.

"It is a political issue and should not be," Kuni wrote: "GA owes much of its industrial legacy to the railroad. This isn't nostalgia, it's fact. The most important part of the defeat of The Confederacy was [Union Gen. William] Sherman's ability to wreck the rail system. And until that system was restored, the South was not restored. It is time to find the value, once again, in railroads."