Georgia DOT makes a push for the Atlanta-to-Lovejoy commuter rail line

And this time they say they mean it

Lost in last week’s headlines about office amore and sexual harassment investigations at the DOT was a unanimous vote by the agency’s board to once again get to work on the long-delayed Atlanta-Lovejoy commuter rail line.

And a project that once prompted former board Chairman Mike Evans to say, “What do we need to do to kill it?” may finally have the backing in finances and political support.

To mass-transit supporters, it’s a fully funded, ready-to-go option that Georgia has delayed too long – metro Atlanta is one of the three largest areas in the country without a commuter rail line. They say the addition of trains to the mobility mix would relieve congestion, improve air quality and help drive more efficient development patterns.

The 26-mile line to Lovejoy would be the seed and the spark – the first phase in a commuter rail network that would spider throughout the metro region from a multimillion-dollar transit station downtown.

Board members say it’s actually going to happen this time. “There’s been a tremendous amount of work already, studies on top of studies,” says DOT board member Larry Walker, of Perry. “And studies studying studies. What we’re saying to our staff is ‘Let’s move forward.’ We’re tired of talking.”

He’s not alone. Members of the board whose districts would see the train – such as Emory McClinton, Sam Wellborn and Dana Lemon – all say that just building roads will not solve the region’s chronic congestion.

“You’ve got to find another way,” McClinton says. “We’re still mired in where we were 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago. Europe and even other cities and areas of this country are outpacing us in terms of the realization that cars cannot do it all.”

One city that’s come to grips with it is Charlotte. Metro Atlanta’s competitor for jobs and residents took a proactive approach to its transportation options and built a 10-mile light-rail system in three years that has already exceeded expectations.

While that was happening in Charlotte, Atlanta sat idle. In traffic.

But a recent presentation to the DOT board that illustrated a viable funding strategy, which could take existing railroad-lease revenues and leverage them to cover much of the costs for a rail network, wowed board members.

The environmental studies are complete and collecting dust. The DOT says the funds allocated for the line are still there. From here, agency staff will tie up loose ends and report back to the board in May on whether the lowest-hanging fruit can finally be plucked and metro Atlanta can catch up with the rest of the nation. If things fall into place, some members say the line to Lovejoy could be up and running in two years.

It’s not smooth sailing, however, and the punishment of delaying action could potentially place the project in a financial pinch. A vital component of the Atlanta-Lovejoy line – as well as the multitude of transportation plans for metro Atlanta – is the transit station proposed for downtown’s “Gulch” where trains, buses and taxis would converge.

CL has learned that a portion of the $87 million in federal funds earmarked for the project is in jeopardy. U.S. Rep. John Lewis had money earmarked several years ago to construct the hub. But the federal funding has a sunset date, and the deadline has to be extended through another bill. But President Bush promised in January to veto any legislation that contained earmarks – language slipped into legislation by lawmakers looking to pull in money for projects in their home district.

A Lewis representative said the move has forced legislators to begin a complex dance of attaching earmarks to bills that the president has no choice but to sign.

Ensuring long-term funds that would cover operating costs is another problem. Skeptics argue that if operating costs become a burden, local communities would be responsible for paying millions of dollars.

David Doss, who sits on the DOT board, says he doesn’t oppose the commuter rail system but does have two strong concerns. “Who’s going to pay the operating loss?” he asks. “The DOT can’t, by the state Constitution. And if at some point in the future, we end commuter rail, DOT would be required to repay some portion of the $84 million.”

The Atlanta-Lovejoy line’s first three years of operation are covered by funds from the Atlanta Regional Commission. The board hopes the new funding strategy will bowl over the Legislature. It will ask the Legislature to allow either the DOT or the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority to use the funding strategy to cover operating costs for the line.

“The operating costs are miniscule compared to what we pay in the maintenance and upkeep for our highways,” says McClinton, adding that studies have already shown the line is viable.

The future of the commuter rail network rests on the General Assembly. Lawmakers would have to approve any plan that shifts dollars received from railroad companies over to the commuter rail line.

But the Statehouse – as well as the governor, to whom many of its leaders kowtow – hasn’t always smiled on commuter rail. The General Assembly’s inaction prompted private sources to help fund a high-speed rail-line study between Atlanta and Chattanooga. In addition, the state’s hesitancy to contribute to federal funds for the downtown hub led to the loss of millions from Washington, D.C.

Even though the legislative session is eight months away, General Assembly leaders have expressed some interest. House Transportation Chairman Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, said he’s excited about the strategy and wants to present it to his legislative colleagues.

Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, stressed the need for a transportation plan – which included the word “transit” – in the marching orders for the next session that he recently sent to Republican senators.

“I think everyone realizes we’ve got to start trying alternatives,” the DOT’s Wellborn says. “This is a good way to start that. I don’t think anyone thinks commuter rail will be a cure-all. But it will take a reasonable number of automobiles off the interstate, hopefully. There are some things that need to be worked out, but it’s moving forward for the first time in a long time and I don’t think it’s going to stop this time.”