By Joel Hall
The City of Jonesboro has told planners of a proposed Atlanta-to-Griffin commuter rail line to look outside of the city limits to build a stop.
In a meeting yesterday with local transportation officials, city council members told representatives from the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) they would support a station on the outskirts of town, on county-owned land.
The discussion signals a change of tone from a December 2008 meeting with former GDOT Commissioner Gena Evans, when the mayor and council expressed support for creating a commuter rail stop at the city's downtown rail depot, in order to take advantage of its downtown renovation efforts.
On Tuesday, GDOT Intermodal Programs Division Director Erik Steavens made the argument to city leaders that many communities along commuter rail lines have experienced growth.
"You're not going to have corporate towers here, based on the fact that you have four trains [a day] coming through here," Steavens said. "[In other cities,] the economic impact wasn't so much that people were there an hour a day, it was that people chose to live somewhere they had an ability to get into town quickly, and they paid whatever the premium was to live within a certain distance to that rail line. That's where the economic development comes from."
On Tuesday, however, the mayor and council told Steavens, and GRTA Project Manager Crew Heimer, they preferred a station north of the city, near Jonesboro High School, or somewhere south of the city, between Jonesboro and Lovejoy. Both potential sites would require the county to take the initiative to build a station.
"You can ride the track from city limit sign, to city limit sign, and there is not a feasible location inside the city limits to put the station," said Jonesboro Mayor Luther Maddox. "Where they are talking about putting it, it's fine with us ... because we'll get some of the fringe benefits from the economic development. That way, the county will be able to pony it up, because it will be on their property and they can take care of it."
During the special called meeting, council members expressed a number of reasons they believe the city's commuter rail stop should exist outside of the Jonesboro's city limits. Those included concerns about increased vehicle congestion, the need to hire more police due to increased foot traffic, and a fear of destroying the city's historic charm.
"There is a great influx of traffic downtown in the afternoons, and it is getting worse, it's not getting better," said Councilman Rick Yonce. "If you put a train station right in the middle of town, you are going to bottleneck us even more. We don't have a lot of rights of way along our railroad tracks, like some of the other cities, like Morrow and Forest Park, so we don't have all of the economic potential that is hoped for.
"I hope it comes to fruition for those other cities, but I just don't see it happening here," he said.
"Originally, the plan was up above the high school, and I still believe that would be the best location for it," Yonce added.
"When I look at putting the station there [near the Road to Tara Museum], I look at it as destroying the historical part of Jonesboro," said Councilman Wallace Norrington. "We would need more policing, because there would be a higher amount of walking traffic. ... It would be a liability for us."
Heimer said all three proposed sites for the Jonesboro commuter rail station have challenges. He said building a station on the northern outskirts of town, however, would come with significant costs because the tracks in the area would have to be straightened to accommodate the 800 feet of straight track needed to create a stop.
"Right now, that curve is three degrees, and the maximum speed is 60 miles per hour," Heimer said. "As for sending any through trains, there would be some limitations. I think the challenge on the south side is where do you put the parking," he added.
Steavens said the discussion with the city was productive, but that it ultimately puts the fate of the commuter rail stop in the hands of Clayton County. "This has been a very informative discussion for us," Steavens said. "We're just trying to get a feel of where we've got to go next. If everybody is in agreement, that based on where we are, and capacity, that something inside the city isn't realistic, that helps us narrow things down.
"The question falls back on what Clayton County wants to do," Steavens added. "We have to get in touch with the chairman [of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners] and see what they want to do."
On Tuesday, Frank Beauford, public transportation coordinator of Clayton County, said the county is prepared to take on the task of building a commuter rail station near Jonesboro, but "would have to find the money" first.
BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.