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'Test drive' planned for commuter-rail project

Photo by Jason A. Smith
Lee Kinnamon (standing), chairman of the Southwest Georgia Railroad Excursion Authority, spoke to regional government leaders, Monday, about a proposed commuter-rail line which could run through Henry and Clayton counties. Plans are underway to introduce the concept to a larger audience, during the Labor Day race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton.

Photo by Jason A. Smith Lee Kinnamon (standing), chairman of the Southwest Georgia Railroad Excursion Authority, spoke to regional government leaders, Monday, about a proposed commuter-rail line which could run through Henry and Clayton counties. Plans are underway to introduce the concept to a larger audience, during the Labor Day race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton.

The push to bring a commuter-rail system to Henry County, and the rest of the Southern Crescent area, kicked into high gear, as regional leaders gathered to discuss ways to generate interest in a trial run for the project.

The meeting, dubbed "A Taste of Rail," was held at Atlanta Motor Speedway (AMS) in Hampton. More than 30 government and community leaders attended the event, Monday, representing areas which could be included in a proposed Atlanta-to-Macon commuter-rail line, including Henry and Clayton counties.

Gordon Kenna, chief executive officer of Georgians for Passenger Rail, described "A Taste of Rail" as a planning meeting, to determine the feasibility of running an excursion train during the Labor Day race weekend at AMS.

"We think it would accomplish a couple of things," Kenna said. "One, it would really raise the visibility of this issue, and the opportunity of having passenger-rail service in this corridor — not just for Hampton, for all of the communities up and down the corridor from Atlanta down to Macon."

He added that service for the excursion train would be different from that which would accompany a commuter train, on a regular basis.

"We see a much faster train, a comfortable train, a predictable schedule, and that sort of thing," said Kenna. "But, this gives people a taste, a little insight into what it might be like."

The proposed Atlanta-to-Macon line is part of House Bill 277, also known as the Transportation Investment Act of 2010. The project would be funded a regional 1-cent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST).

The funding is contingent upon voter approval of a regional sales-tax referendum.

Tim Echols, Public Service Commissioner for the State of Georgia, hosted the event. The endeavor, he said, was designed to generate support for an Atlanta-to-Macon rail system, organizing a test run in conjunction with a NASCAR race on Labor Day weekend.

"This is a test drive for a train, to let people see what it would be like," said Echols. "I think there's a lot of questions that people might have. Is this something that my community is in favor of? How will it impact my community? How much money will it bring? Will it cause new companies to want to locate in my county?" he said.

The test run would be open to government and community leaders, from each of the areas along the proposed commuter-rail line. Echols said the possibility of an Atlanta-to-Macon rail line has been "somewhat controversial" among government leaders in Henry. He said the commuter train does not have to stop in Henry.

"The train could just go from Griffin, right on up to Morrow and on into Hapeville," he said. "It's not a done deal that it has to stop in Henry County, if Henry County leadership thinks that's a bad idea. I think a lot of Henry County residents have viewed this as kind of like MARTA, but this is different. This is a passenger rail, and this is primarily to serve Middle Georgia. The benefit here is economic development for the Southern Crescent, and for Middle Georgia."

Lee Kinnamon, chairman of the Southwest Georgia Railroad Excursion Authority, told the group his Cordele, Ga.-based organization, has been operating passenger tourist trains since 2002, in South Georgia.

An Atlanta-to-Macon line would be similar, but on a larger scale, to his fleet.

"We see our operation as a small mode, for something that could be much larger from Middle Georgia to the metro Atlanta area," Kinnamon said. "Our idea is that we bring the train to Macon, and we operate a series of trains showcasing rail between Macon and Atlanta. The details have to be worked out for this event, but what we want to do is bring high levels of interest to this project."

Kay Pippin, president of the Henry County Chamber of Commerce, has been a strong proponent for an Atlanta-to-Macon rail line. "It's going to give everyone an opportunity to experience rail firsthand, to see that the tracks and the infrastructure are already there for commuter service from Atlanta to Macon and back, and to points beyond," said Pippin. "It's going to give us an opportunity to see the corridor itself, and how it would work, to stop at the stations along the way, including Hampton."

The Chamber president said guests who board the train for race weekend at AMS, will be able to see how a commuter train would affect the area from the standpoints of economic-development and tourism.

Ed Clark, president and general manager of AMS, said one reason he agreed to host "A Taste of Rail," was because of the impact a commuter train would potentially have on his business.

"The commuter rail could be another alternative way for people to travel to our major events," he said. "Not only that, but we have driving schools and daily tours and things like that. It could also be a weekend destination opportunity for people to come down to the speedway, provided there's a stop in Hampton."