ARC staff rejects Southern Crescent's commuter rail

The push to bring a passenger-rail line through the Southern Crescent, including Henry and Clayton counties, has been derailed, for now.

Staff members at the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) have recommended cutting a $463.6 million Atlanta-to-Griffin commuter rail project from a list of proposed transportation endeavors, for the metropolitan Atlanta region.

The project is part of a proposed Atlanta-to-Macon commuter rail line, which proponents — including Georgians for Passenger Rail — seek to bring to the area.

Gordon Kenna, executive director of Georgians for Passenger Rail, said he is "perplexed" the ARC's recommendation to eliminate the rail project locally.

"We intend to pursue our opportunity to revisit these decisions," Kenna said. "There are a lot of ways remaining to balance transit investments. That's both the split between transit projects and road projects, and how to balance the transit needs of the whole region. Commuter rail was the only rail transit project on the southside of Atlanta," he said.

"All the other rail transit projects are north of I-20. So when this project is revisited, we believe that regional balance should be considered," said Kenna.

The rail line would have traveled from Atlanta, through Clayton County, and into southwest Henry County, on its way to Griffin. Kenna added that, for those who favor the rail concept locally, all hope is not lost in the wake of the recent recommendation. "This is an ARC staff recommendation, not a roundtable decision," he said.

The commuter-rail project was included in an unconstrained list of projects, as part of the Transportation Investment Act of 2010. Projects were assembled in the region earlier this year, in preparation for regional referendums on the transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which is set for a vote in July of 2012.

Henry Commission Chairman Elizabeth "B.J." Mathis is a member of the ARC Roundtable's executive committee. She said ARC staff was directed to reduce its initial list of projects, using a list of criteria centering on several components.

Those criteria, Mathis said, included congestion mitigation, economic development opportunities, geographic equity, and the ability to complete a given project in the 10-year time frame prescribed the legislation.

"Because this rail project depends on the cooperation of Norfolk Southern, and it is a lengthy and difficult process to get approval for any projects that impact their lines, staff felt the project could not be completed in the time frame allotted," Mathis said.

Chairman Mathis added that the majority of the "critical" projects for Henry were not recommended to be cut.

"If constructed, [they] will have a huge impact on traffic congestion and economic development in Henry County in the future," Mathis said.

ARC Spokesman Jim Jaquish said Clayton County, but not Henry, submitted the rail project for consideration on the project list.

"A project only needed to be submitted one entity to be considered, even if it goes through several other jurisdictions," Jaquish said.

The $12.2 billion list of projects "represents the best efforts of transportation planners around the region to give the Roundtable members a stepping-off point for reaching our $6.1 billion list in October," said Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable.

"The cuts that were made are recommendations," said Johnson. "They are not final decisions. It is up to the roundtable members to make those difficult choices, and create the final list."

Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell submitted the rail project for his county, and said he remains a proponent of the project, because it has regional implications for areas including Clayton and Henry counties.

"I have spoken with rail advocates who are for it," said Bell. "What came from the ARC is merely a recommendation. I do not want to speak for the roundtable at this juncture on what they might do regarding passenger rail, because we have a number of issues to cover prior to making our final decision."

Locust Grove Mayor, and roundtable participant, Lorene Lindsey, said the roundtable is scheduled to meet Aug. 15 to go over a revised transportation list, in order to meet the $6.1 billion cap on projects for the region.

"The roundtable has until Oct. 15 to get it down to the $6.1 billion," Lindsey said. "Right now it's in the ARC and executive team's purview, and the whole roundtable won't get it until the 15th of August."

— Clayton News Daily staff writer Curt Yeomans contributed to this article.