Hudson Strategic Group representative Clarence Williamson listens to a question during a high-speed rail presentation at the Clayton County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)
JONESBORO — Travelers moving between Savannah and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport could someday zoom through Clayton County.
Clarence Williamson, a representative from the Hudson Strategic Group, appeared before county commissioners Tuesday to tell them about a high-speed rail effort that is being developed. The Hudson Strategic Group is a business architectural firm involved in the planning.
Williamson told county commissioners the state has identified nearly a half-dozen priority proposed high-speed rail lines that would connect Atlanta to Chattanooga, Charlotte, Savannah and Birmingham. He said another future priority will be a line connecting Columbus and Atlanta.
He said those plans call for a multi-modal transportation center to be built near the airport to connect those lines.
“One thing I want to be clear about is that this is about an express high-speed rail, and not what you’ve heard about before, which is just a standard (commuter) rail,” Williamson said. “This is where we’ll be looking at the trains averaging at least 160 mph.”
There have been efforts for years to get a commuter rail line built that would come down through the county with possible stops in Forest Park, Morrow, Lovejoy and possibly further south to Griffin and Macon. Those efforts have struggled to gain traction, though.
This would not be a solution to getting that effort going. If the high-speed rail line is built, Clayton County residents should not expect to see these trains stopping in various cities in their county. Williamson told commissioners that is something more suited for the commuter rail concept.
“The express high is trying to get from Savannah into Atlanta — in this case the Aerotropolis (around the airport) — to drop people off so they can go on to various destinations,” Williamson said.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean Clayton County won’t be able to benefit from a rail line whose on and off point will in the far northwest corner of the county. Williamson also told commissioners they could leverage it for development possibilities, although he did not elaborate on what those opportunities could entail.
“As it relates to the county specifically … there are going to be economic development opportunities as it relates to this, and to look at what your best fit will be,” Williamson said. “That will be part of the conversations that we will have holistically as it relates to this particular program.”
Chairman Jeff Turner asked how people would come into Clayton County on the trains, and Williamson told him the lines would closely follow interstates. He also said localized commuter rail lines and bus services could be built or set up as branches off the high-speed rail lines.
Williamson also said the county’s advantage, regardless of which line is built, is that they would all converge at Hartsfield-Jackson anyway.
Clayton County Economic Development Director Grant Wainscott said even a rail line that only stops at the airport can help the county by bringing in people from outside the area. The county collects sales tax revenue whenever someone buys food, souvenirs or travel accessories at the airport.
There is also the possibility that some of those out-of-town visitors could come by a train a day before their flight, or stay a day in the area after flying in.
“If a high-speed rail line is eventually built, it would make an impact and I think the entire region benefits from that,” Wainscott said. “If it has a stop at the airport, then that brings more people into the county who could spend a night in our hotels, eat in our restaurants and shop in our stores.”
Williamson told commissioners that planners are not looking at using local tax dollars to fund construction of the rail line. Instead, it would be the result of a public-private partnership where 80 percent of the money would come from federal funding, while the remaining 20 percent would come from the private sector.