By Daniel Silliman
With gas prices pushing commuters into standing-room-only buses, new leadership at the Georgia Department of Transportation and public support from the governor, commuter rail seems to have gone from a much-discussed project to a pilot project coming soon.
Gov. Sonny Perdue, who opposed a transportation funding bill, which would have helped commuter rail last legislative session, issued a release announcing a transportation plan late Thursday.
"We need more transportation options," Perdue said. "I am fully prepared to support GDOT's efforts on commuter rail and making the pilot a reality."
The pilot commuter line -- until now called the "proposed" commuter line -- will run from an Atlanta multi-modal center down to Griffin, linking four counties and seven cities. It will be the first leg of a train system that is mapped out from Athens to Macon, and will, supporters say, relieve Atlanta's congestion and create economic development.
U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), who played a role in securing $106 million in federal funding for the line, said the rail will "provide a much-needed economic boost" in the Southern Crescent.
Rail supporters were ecstatic on Friday. They said Perdue's support for commuter rail, along with other public transportation, was very cautious, but symbolically significant.
"It's a major change in position [for Purdue]," said Paul Walker, a spokesman for Georgians for the Brain Train, "and it helps us a great deal. Finally, we've got critical mass."
Eldrin Bell, chairman of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners and of the Transportation Planning Board, said he thought Perdue was persuaded by the leadership at GDOT, and was "pushed over the edge," by gas prices reaching the $4 mark.
Bell said the governor's statements had "far-reaching implications," and would be followed by bills in both houses of the general assembly providing funding mechanisms to pay for the operational costs of the commuter line.
Over at GDOT, according to spokesman David Spear, the staff has been instructed by the board to stop waiting for a solution to the problems with implementing a commuter rail line and start working on solutions. The governor's statement reinforces that, though, and has given the department a big morale boost.
"I think there's been a perception that he hasn't been a commuter rail advocate," Spear said. "If he didn't support it before, he does now."
Spear said Perdue's caution could actually be persuasive to some, because he's not, as some commuter rail supporters have been characterized, just enchanted by images of trains.
"He's not a pie-in-the-sky guy. It's got to be practical and have some concrete benefits ... He's still cautious, but we're going forward with the first leg of the commuter rail, and if it succeeds as we think it will and hope it will, then that further instills confidence," Spear said.
The governor's transportation proposal also includes 28 additional Georgia Regional Transportation Authority buses, which will be added to the Xpress fleet this fall.
Bell, who has pushed for a mix of transportation modes as part of a regional, comprehensive plan, said the support from Perdue has him overjoyed.
"We needed the governor out front on this," Bell said.