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Commuter rail: Focus of transportation conference

Photo by Jason A. Smith
Bob White, executive director of the Henry County Development Authority, spoke during  a transportation conference at the Henry County Chamber of Commerce. White said a commuter-rail system could be used to make Henry more attractive.

Photo by Jason A. Smith Bob White, executive director of the Henry County Development Authority, spoke during a transportation conference at the Henry County Chamber of Commerce. White said a commuter-rail system could be used to make Henry more attractive.

By Jason A. Smith

jsmith@henryherald.com

More than two-thirds of Henry residents travel outside the county to work every day. Members of the business community openly discussed how a proposed commuter-rail line could impact those numbers, and other aspects of economic development.

Efforts are rolling along in Henry County, and the Southern Crescent area, to bring an Atlanta-to-Macon rail line through the county. The latest step in that process took place Monday at the Henry County Chamber of Commerce, in the form of a Transportation and Economic Development Conference that involved nearly 100 people.

"We are keenly interested in what this [the rail line] could do for the future of Henry County, and everything on that corridor, as it relates to jobs, the efficient movement of people, and the quality of life that this rail line could bring to our part of the state," said Henry Chamber President Kay Pippin.

She is among those leading the charge, locally, to promote the line. The conference, she added, was designed to address several components of the project, including the feasibility of the track, how quickly a commuter train would transport passengers, and what is needed to make it suitable for travel.

Those at the one-day conference also sought support from the public for the rail line, and an unconstrained list of proposed transportation projects, as part of the Transportation Investment Act of 2010.

A scheduled regional sales-tax vote could result in a 1-cent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST). It would fund a number of projects, including the rail line, according to Pippin.

One panel, moderated by Ray Christman of the Livable Communities Coalition, focused on the impact on economic development from the rail line.

Bob White, executive director of the Henry County Development Authority, said decision-makers must broaden their perspective, to keep pace with a changing economy. "We can't rely on the old way of doing business," White said. "The bottom line is, we can't build enough roads. We need various options. This is one of those options, and one of those things that will make ... Henry County more attractive."

Chip Cherry, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Macon/Bibb County Chamber of Commerce, said community leaders must be thoughtful, regarding land use in areas along the proposed rail line.

"It has an impact on what the complexion of the community looks like," said Cherry. "From Macon's perspective, we're blessed with one very unique and historically significant community. Downtown has a lot of character to it that a lot of the younger communities don't have, and that's something we can leverage to create that sense of place ..."

Rick Porter, president and CEO of Tucker-based Richport Properties, said a rail system would create a new housing pattern. He said a suburban development wave in Tucker has detracted from the fabric of his community.

"The opportunity that you have today, is to get ahead of that type of growth in this emerging corridor, and grab that fabric," Porter said. "We've got to learn from the past. We can learn from development patterns, and we have learned a lot, but then, we made a few mistakes along the way."

William Tate, industrial development manager for Norfolk Southern, emphasized the need for his company to communicate with other train groups using the same rail lines.

"We've got to ensure that our freight environment, and our freight integrity, doesn't suffer," he said. "We've got to ... continue to perform at the level that it's currently at, or better. The commuter side of it also has to perform at a certain level, so it is a valued service to the surrounding community."

Pippin said a commuter train would help to ensure people get to, and from, their jobs in an efficient manner.

"About 70 percent of Henry County leaves Henry County every day to go to their jobs, and then come back home to where they live," Pippin said. "Whether they ride the train or not, they hope someone else will ride that train, to take them off that interstate. The train is so reliable. You know when you get on it at point A, that you're going to get to point B, at a specific time. That's not true of the interstate."