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Study: Rail line a boon to Southern Crescent

By Maria-Jose Subiria

msubiria@news-daily.com

A 103-mile passenger rail line, proposed by the state, will bring economical growth and development to counties south of Atlanta, including Clayton County, according to Gordon Kenna, executive director of Georgians for Passenger Rail.

Kenna's comments came Tuesday at Clayton State University, as he reported the findings of a study his agency requested from the Brookings Institution, a non-profit, policy group based in Washington, D.C.

"The proposed Atlanta-Macon passenger rail line will provide economic stimulus for the two downtown termini, but it will provide even more for key station areas along the line," according to the study.

The growth strategy of Atlanta has followed a northern pattern, because the housing market was highly favored there, said Kenna. The rail line will bring economical growth and development south of Atlanta, by reconnecting cities and towns, allowing Georgia to share prosperity among regions, Kenna said the study determined. The rail line, he said, will allow more employment opportunities, by making long-distance commutes more accessible. For example, a person might live in Macon, but work in Atlanta, he said.

"The driver for the study is development and how transportation development improves developing options," Kenna said. The study indicates the passenger rail line, predicted to begin operating in 2016, will begin in Macon, and travel north with stops in Forsyth, Griffin, Hampton, Morrow, Hapeville and Downtown Atlanta, he said.

The cities were chosen as stops, because they contain a high demand of walk-able urban real estate development, he said. They are places where individuals are able to reach shops and stores at a comfortable walking distance from their home, he explained

"In most metropolitan areas ... two-thirds of all households are singles, and couples, who tend to be the target market for walk-able urban housing and neighborhoods," he said. "This percentage is estimated to increase over the next 20 years, since well over 80 percent of net new household formations will be singles and couples," according to the Brookings report.

Kenna said the cities were also chosen for their resources and investment opportunities. Hapeville is in close proximity to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Morrow has assets, such as Clayton State University, The National Archives at Atlanta, and the Georgia Archives. Hampton has development potential, and Griffin, because it offers the University of Georgia Griffin Campus.

According to Kenna, in order for the Morrow stop to take advantage of the predicted growth that will ripple throughout Clayton County, there must be a public transportation system. "I am going to be very surprised if that situation [no public transportation] remains," he said.

Kenna said the Macon-Atlanta route has an existing under-utilized track that would be inexpensive to repair for high speed rail. During peak time hours, the rail line's service will include four round trips, from Griffin to Atlanta, and two round trips, from Macon to Atlanta, the rail advocate said.

By 2018, the rail line will have $400 million in capital, calculated in Fiscal Year 2010 terms, according to the study. It will take approximately six years for the line to become a reality, because more funds need to be raised, said Kenna. Recently, the Georgia Department of Transportation approved four grant applications, totaling $16.5 million, from the Federal Railroad Administration, said Crystal Paulk-Buchanan, spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Transportation.

The funds will assist the state in developing routes, including the Macon-to-Atlanta route, and an Atlanta-to-Charlotte line, and the "Capital-Coastal" loop, connecting Atlanta, Athens, Augusta, Savannah and Macon, she said. The funds also will assist in updating the state rail plan, said Paulk-Buchanan.

"These grants will enable the department to complete the environment documents necessary for us to move forward in designing and further developing future passenger rail corridors," said Bill Kuhlke, Jr., board chairman of the Georgia Department of Transportation. "The Capital -Coastal Loop, in particular, would provide connectivity and travel choices to several key economic centers. By completing these plans now, Georgia will be well-positioned to take advantage of federal funds for design, right-of-way or even construction."

In addition, Kenna said Georgia House Bill 277 "creates transportation funding for regions throughout Georgia." The bill will allow taxpayers to vote on July 2012, to approve their region's project list, and the one percent sales tax for the projects, he said.

Kenna said development of the Macon-Atlanta rail line won't begin until 2013. "Consumers [taxpayers] will get more than what they paid for," said Kenna, about the rail line. He said other cities in the U.S., such as Phoenix, Ariz., Denver, Colo., and Salt Lake City, Utah, operate a rail-transit system and understand the benefits it brings.

Atlanta, he said, has delayed executing a rail line for residents, because it has felt comfortable with its success in industrial growth, automobile dependency, land development and cheap energy. In 2009, Georgians for Passenger Rail, a group made up of business and community leaders, supported the state in building a sound case for the proposed rail line, said Kenna. He said, through discussions with state officials, the group identified areas of economic inquiry that needed clarification, before Georgia could proceed with an investment on the Macon-Atlanta line.

Officials from key agencies, such as the Georgia Department of Transportation, Georgia Regional Transportation Association and the Atlanta Regional Commission, were involved, Kenna said.

"We think there is a better opportunity for Georgia to become more unified as a state [through the passenger rail line]," said Kenna.