By Jason A. Smith
Prominent voices in the Southern Crescent are renewing their efforts to bring passenger-rail service to the Southside of metropolitan Atlanta.
The proposed rail line would run from Atlanta to Macon, according to Kay Pippin, president of the Henry County Chamber of Commerce. She has been an outspoken proponent of the project since taking over her organization nine years ago.
Since 2009, Georgians for Passenger Rail (GPR) has worked to raise awareness of the need for a passenger-rail system in the region. The organization recently moved its headquarters to Macon, in an effort to bring the concept to reality.
"Its leadership has been working steadfastly to get some amount of this Atlanta-to-Macon-commuter-rail project included in the unconstrained list of projects being developed in each of the regions that will be holding regional referendums on the transportation [Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax] in July of 2012," said Pippin.
"GPR has been successful in getting a portion of this project on three regions' lists. It's on the unconstrained list of metro Atlanta, the Three Rivers Region, which includes Griffin, and the Bibb-Macon Region. I know of no other transportation project in the state of Georgia that has made it onto multiple regions' unconstrained list. That makes it very unique, and I think it makes it very difficult for decision-makers to kick it off the list."
"We've realized that to achieve our mission, which includes the goal of a Macon-to-Atlanta passenger rail in the next 10 years, GPR must be outside Atlanta," said John Izard, immediate past chairman of GPR. "And where better than Macon, in the center of the state, where a group of leaders is deeply committed to passenger rail?"
Pippin added that efforts to bring the rail concept to fruition locally, date back 25 years. She said lawmakers appropriated millions of dollars in funding for the rail project, which has yet to be used, due to changes in Georgia's transportation policy, and economic changes over time.
"Over the years, Georgia has not done what it needed to do, to be able to pull down those funds and implement that line," Pippin said. "Atlanta has been left behind by other cities in this country who have realized that we can't continue to completely depend upon cars, gasoline and roads -- that, as our populations increase, we have to have other alternative means of transportation.
"Congressional leaders have decided any state that hasn't drawn down funds that were designated for a particular project, are going to go back into the general fund for reappropriation to places where people are doing things to get ready for such a project," she continued.
"The Chambers of Commerce, the business communities, a majority of the elected leaders, all up and down the proposed line, have never lost faith, and have always wanted to see this become a reality. Trains are coming to Georgia. Why not let that first one be on the south side of Atlanta?"
The Transportation Investment Act of 2010, passed by the Georgia General Assembly, creates 12 regional transportation districts in Georgia. The act allows each district to impose a 1-cent sales tax, with its funds designated for transportation improvements. The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) will pare down the requests into an unconstrained list by mid-May.
The commuter-rail project, Pippin said, is "not an end all, be all solution" to Henry's transportation woes. She acknowledged that some residents are opposed to the idea.
"There are many problems with any alternative measure of transportation," she said. "But, if you look at the nation's great cities today ... communities have invested in commuter rail for their residents, and every one of them love it. They, too, had difficulty overcoming attitudes when the concept was first introduced, but because of its expense, they would build one line in one direction and, if they could afford it, another line.
"In every instance where that first line went out, the rest of the county, or community, was squabbling over 'me next, me next,'" Pippin added. "People want it because they see it's clean, it's efficient, it runs on time, and you know exactly how much time you're going to invest in getting from point A to point B -- unlike when you hit I-75, and you don't have a clue when you're going to make it to your job in downtown Atlanta or north Atlanta, at seven o'clock in the morning. You don't have those problems with commuter rail."
The Chamber president said the Southside has been passed over in past years for development opportunities, in favor of projects on the north side of the Atlanta area. The Atlanta-Macon rail line, she said, would set the community apart, if supported at the state and local levels.
"We have all the ingredients for great prosperity, but we can't rest and risk our future on infrastructure that leaders put in place 65 years ago," Pippin said. "We have to now be building for the future. We've already been told we're going to pick up another 239,000 people in Henry County alone, over the next 20 years. We know that Atlanta is growing by an additional three million people over the next 20 years. Does anyone truly believe that our existing interstates will take care of all that?"
Pippin said the primary concern for Georgians regarding the commuter-rail project, is how to pay for it. For this, she said, the state of Georgia and the federal government must be the major bearers of responsibility.
"We want to think that we have no financial investment in interstates, but roads are subsidized like every other form of transportation," Pippin said. "So, yes, I do think there's going to be some subsidy to this. I don't think it's going to be as expensive as its been made out to be."