By Daniel Silliman
The first stretch of the proposed commuter rail line now extends past Clayton County, through a corner of Henry County, and pushes south to Griffin.
The State Transportation Board voted to extend the planned first phase of the project at its last meeting. The "Lovejoy line" officially became the "Atlanta-to-Griffin line" at the end of July.
Rail supporters have long backed the 18-mile extension for practical and political reasons. The Georgia Department of Transportation studied the costs and benefits of the extra-stretch two years ago.
The Griffin extension doesn't come as a surprise, since it was endorsed by the governor when he publicly came out in support of commuter rail line, but the GDOT board's move does change things. According to the 2006 extension study, the stops in Hampton and Griffin could bring on board another 2,200 riders per day, increasing ridership by 45 percent. Those additional riders might give the commuter rail a stronger start, said David Spear, GDOT spokesman.
"We want to give it the best opportunity to succeed," he said. "To open the Griffin market of commuters, that's simply the best opportunity ... It's a really practical consideration."
The extension, down the existing Norfolk Southern tracks, is projected to cost about $38 million, a cost that includes improvements to the track, crossing safety, the construction of two stations, additional train cars and yard facilities. More than $30 million of the initial cost is set to be funded by the federal government, leaving state and local costs at about $8 million.
The proposed shorter line, stopping in Lovejoy, actually was supposed to run to Griffin anyway, project plans show. Passengers would have had their last Clayton County stop in Lovejoy, but the trains would have run "deadhead" to Griffin, where they could turn around and be housed at night.
Sandy Crosby, a Spalding County rail supporter who led a petition drive last year, said she was glad plans now include Griffin, but she wasn't exactly impressed by the state's transportation officials.
"What happened to the visionaries in this country?" Crosby said. "It makes sense for the line to come to Griffin. Prior to that, it was going to stop in Lovejoy and deadhead to Griffin. That didn't make any sense at all."
Crosby said the people who commute from Griffin to Atlanta spend 20 hours in their car, each week, the equivalent of a part-time job.
Griffin famously opposed Interstate 75, when it was under construction and scheduled to come through Spalding County, and some of the city's current generation of civic leaders see that as the "Griffin curse." The rail line, they say, could allow them the sort of growth and opportunity Henry County has seen in the last few years, along the Interstate.
Some rail-backers have sought to use that to help create a coalition of support. Eldrin Bell, Clayton County Board of Commissioners Chairman and strong rail supporter, solicited Griffin's support when it seemed like Clayton County was turning against commuter rail, fearing unchecked operating costs.
The move was meant to infuse new life into the commuter rail conversation and get the project perceived as important to a region, not specific interests.
Paul Snyder, working with Georgians for the Brain Train, said it was an important political and branding move to get the "Lovejoy line" referred to as the "Griffin Line." The adjustment makes the southern stretch commuter rail regional, not just crossing Clayton County, and brings in some vocal, active support.
There was a July pro-rail rally in Griffin last year when GDOT's Intermodal Committee was looking to vote on a proposal to kill the project, and return the designated federal money. Co-sponsored by the Sierra Club and some Spalding County officials, people dressed up as types of potential riders and carried signs reading "waiting for the train."
About the same time, Crosby and others collected 4,000 signatures supporting the proposed project, and took the petition to Gov. Sonny Perdue, in hopes he would back legislative measures to fund the operational costs of the line.
"Griffin civic leaders have been enthusiastic about the prospect of commuter rail service," wrote Steve Vogel, president of The Georgia Association of Rail Passengers.