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GDOT chief looking for commuter rail supporters

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) Commissioner Gena Evans has told Jonesboro city officials a proposed Atlanta-to-Griffin rail project is expected to cost $200 million, and it needs the city's support.

Evans was in Jonesboro Monday at a special meeting, seeking more support for the proposed commuter rail line, and help to convince state lawmakers to shoulder a portion of the cost.

"We're really excited about the opportunity we have in front of us," said Evans, who noted that GDOT has been working on the project for about a decade. "We're about $106 million short on capital costs for implementation from Atlanta to Griffin. What we are looking for through the General Assembly is the matching funds."

Evans said GDOT has procured $16.5 million in federal CMAQ [Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality] funds to cover the operational costs for the first three years, as well as $83 million for capital costs from the U.S. Federal Transportation Administration (FTA).

In order to utilize the $83 million in FTA funds, however, GDOT must eventually submit a 20-year plan. Evans appealed to the Jonesboro mayor and council to assist in helping GDOT create a 20-year plan, and in convincing the Georgia General Assembly to match the $83 million during its next legislative session.

Jonesboro's mayor and council expressed an interest in the massive rail project, expected to eventually stretch to Macon.

"As far as financing and the operating funds, I am all for it, as long as it doesn't fall on the homeowners. It should be paid for by the people who use it in some shape, form or fashion," said Mayor Luther Maddox.

Maddox said the city would like to integrate a commuter rail station into its existing downtown rail depot, in keeping with the city's plans for a new downtown.

However, the mayor and council expressed a range of reservations, including: pedestrian access issues; the potential for profit; mitigating downtown congestion and attracting businesses, given the fact that current plans have the train making stops in Jonesboro only four times in the morning and four times in the evening, five days a week.

"Since our whole commuter rail is only going to run five days a week and just run a little dab in the morning, and a little dab in the evening, that brings me to the point ... how in the world are you going to get somebody to put [in] shops to make any money off of [it]?" asked Maddox.

The Jonesboro mayor said several years ago, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) approached the city about building a commuter rail station on the north side of town near Jonesboro High School.

However, Maddox and council members prefer the existing downtown rail depot, in order to take advantage of its current downtown renovation projects.

"We have a Streetscape project going on," Maddox said. "We expect it to revive our downtown somewhat. If the station is downtown, we stand a better chance of having a little business, and people to shop there."

A commuter rail station downtown will give passengers access to 300 parking spaces within a block of it, and additional weekday parking at nearby churches.

"Right now, we're kind of overwhelmed with our traffic. I really wonder what is going to happen if we have a train station in town where we are going to try to draw more people in. I'm afraid that it's going to be a problem for our residents," said Councilman Rick Yonce.

"We have ... possibly two square miles in our little town, and we have a lot of traffic, especially in the early morning and late afternoon," Yonce added.

Evans said she would not ask the City of Jonesboro for any financial commitments until GDOT is able to produce more solid financing information.

Eventually, she said, GDOT would like to host monthly meetings with area residents to get their thoughts on commuter rail.

"We just want to start the conversation," said Evans. "We sort of bury our heads in the sand about dealing with land use and transportation. We can't support new growth with just roads and bridges. We have to get support for commuter rail."