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Rail programs on track, running late

As in, don't sell your car just yet

To read the papers, you'd think the idea of commuter rail was on the fast track to an early grave. Plans to build a downtown train-rail-bus-MARTA transit station are reportedly collapsing, and Gov. Roy Barnes left out $3.9 million in next year's budget that would have funded the construction of commuter rail lines from Atlanta to Macon and Athens.

These two setbacks might be read as the first lines in the obituary for rail transportation, considered by many to be Atlanta's last best hope for clean air and sane traffic.

Fear not. Plans for commuter rail haven't stalled; they've just switched tracks. The idea for a multi-modal station in downtown is being resurrected in Clayton County. A station there would link the county's bus system, MARTA, Georgia Regional Transportation Authority's regional bus system, Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport and the (so far imaginary) commuter rail line running between Macon and Atlanta.

The Atlanta Regional Commission's current schedule calls for construction of that terminal — near the airport — to begin in 10 years, but Clayton County Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer doubts the region can wait that long. He says he'll ask the ARC to break ground in 2003, or 2004 at the latest.

Meanwhile, reports of the downtown station's death are greatly exaggerated.

"It's been disappointing, but there's been no deal breaker," says Mike Dobbins, city of Atlanta planning and development commissioner.

The land on which the downtown terminal would be built is owned by Norfolk Southern. With the state refusing to pony up $3.9 million to buy the land, rail advocates feared the project would die if the property was sold to a private developer.

But the hope is that any developer — eager to take advantage of the $20 million to $30 million in government money available — would jump at the chance to help build the mixed-use component of the terminal.

"It's moving closer and closer to a reality," Dobbins says. "Everyone thinking of buying [Norfolk Southern's] land is aware of the $20 million to $30 million already committed to getting the project built."

Like the Clayton County station, the downtown terminal would tie commuter rail and buses together — in this case, near MARTA's Five Points and CNN Center stations. The idea is that a commuter in GRTA's 13-county district could travel to work using any combination of MARTA, light rail, commuter rail or express bus.

There's other encouraging signs as well on the mass transit front. In December, the Atlanta City Council passed a resolution that directs revenues from car rental taxes to multi-modal center support projects, although Dobbins says the city hasn't figured out how much money that would generate. And the city council now is considering legislation that would dedicate $1 million to the downtown terminal, Dobbins says.

On the state level, Barnes and the General Assembly gave GRTA $100,000 to look into transit technologies like the SmartCard, which would distribute a rider's fare to the different transit providers the rider uses.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club is seeking a court order to shut down most road projects in the metro area because the ARC's $36 billion transportation plan doesn't include enough funds for commuter rail lines, light rail lines or stations like the one proposed for Clayton County.

There's also a $12 billion federal proposal, cosponsored by Sen. Max Cleland, to build high-speed rail lines connecting major Southern cities.

But despite the halting steps toward addressing clean air concerns, transforming Atlanta from a smog-choked, traffic-snarled hell into a marginally functional city is still years away. Almost all projects that could rescue Atlantans from their hour-long commutes are in only the planning stages.

And with summer approaching, there's no better time to see Atlanta's air at its worst. As ground-level ozone rates skyrocket, thousands of children and elderly will cough and wheeze their way into emergency rooms and asthma clinics across the metro area.??