A waiting shuttle whisks you a short distance to a depot where you board a commuter train. Instead of fussing and fuming over traffic gridlock, you relax, sip coffee, read the newspaper or get some work done on the ride into downtown Atlanta.
Is this scenario feasible?
Is it something the public would support?
Last July, voters in south DeKalb County joined others around metro Atlanta in emphatically rejecting the $8.5 billion T-SPLOST initiative.
Taxpayers were upset that after more than 30 years of supporting MARTA, the T-SPLOST offered only more bus service for South DeKalb in the short run and only a possibility of rapid rail sometime in the distant future.
But an East Metro commuter rail service could be a practical and possibly less expensive alternative.
Miles of railroad already exist in the community and former rail depots, like the ones in downtown Stone Mountain, Decatur and Olde Town Conyers, have been transformed into other uses, including restaurants, museums and visitor centers.
More than 50 of the picturesque little rail stops that once processed passengers, freight and mail have survived across the 28-county metro area.
The Stone Mountain rail depot on Main Street was built in 1857 and rebuilt in 1914. It housed Stone Mountain’s City Hall between 1964 and February 2012. The city’s Police Department recently moved out and officials say it will become a visitor center and museum.
The Decatur Depot, built in 1891, had passenger rail service until 1988. After that, the depot at the intersection of College and Howard avenues housed a number of restaurants and bars.
The city of Decatur raised $250,000 in early 2006 to move it back 30 feet from the tracks after CSX relinquished it.
The depot been vacant since the Cajun restaurant Depeaux closed there in 2010.
The Lithonia Rail Depot, once a thriving passenger stop on Main Street, was torn down in the 1960s to make way for urban renewal.
The Olde Town Conyers rail depot, located at 901 Railroad St., was built in 1845. It operated until 1972 when passenger rail service between Atlanta and Augusta ceased.
It is now a Conyers Welcome Center and a social gathering place maintained by the Rockdale County Historical Society.
CSX owns the 147-mile rail line that runs from East Georgia through South DeKalb and into Atlanta at the proposed site for a multimodal transit station.
The railroad uses that corridor for its lucrative freight service.
Would it be willing to share that line with a passenger operation?
In a statement last week, CSX said “maybe.”
One possible arrangement is for a commuter rail line to operate from 7 to 9 in the morning and from 5 to 7 during the evening rush Monday through Friday as a way of gauging rider support.
“For commuter rail to be introduced onto freight-exclusive tracks requires that any proposal provide no degradation in safety,” CSX spokesman Gary Sease said.
The proposal also would have to provide “the ability to serve our customers today and to grow our business, proper liability protection with the additional risk of passengers on our rails, and compensation for the use of our private property.”
“CSX has been part of the dialogue about commuter rail for many years, and we look forward to continuing the discussion about this important matter,” Sease said.
Studies support feasibility
The advocacy group Georgia Rail Passenger Association says the feasibility of adding passenger service to existing freight lines has been studied since the late 1980s. It said the Georgia Department of Transportation conducted a study of commuter rail between 1993 and 1995.
It said it worked on a Major Investment Study of commuter rail in the Athens-to-Atlanta corridor.
Those studies concluded that with infrastructure improvements, “it is feasible to add passenger service as exists in over a dozen U.S. cities.”
In Lithonia, where a once-bustling rail station brought travelers to and through the city, Mayor Deborah Jackson said commuter rail also could spur commercial development in the tiny city’s depressed downtown.
“It’s a fantastic idea,” said Jackson, who is from New York City and was accustomed to taking the train.
The once prosperous town hit hard times in the 1950s with the decline of its granite mining industry.
Jackson believes train service would be an ideal resource giving heritage tourists easy access to Lithonia’s historic sites.
If the railroad concerns can be worked out, there’s still the matter of funds for passenger rail cars, locomotives and an operating budget.
In 2010, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was highly critical of then-Gov. Sonny Perdue at a transportation summit in Macon.
Annoyed by the state’s slowness in raising matching funds for a high-speed rail project, LaHood said “Georgia needs to get its act together” on alternative modes of transit.
More to the point, Washington wants Georgia to act on its own plans.
The list of long-proposed commuter rail includes Athens to Atlanta; Atlanta to Lovejoy and Macon; Bremen to Atlanta; Canton to Atlanta; and Gainesville to Atlanta.
Cities across U.S. vie for grants
In 2008 after visiting commuter rail services in Philadelphia and Chicago, a delegation of Georgia Department of Transportation officials urged the state Legislature to pass a transit policy.
Perdue backed the Lovejoy line and said he wanted it to be pursued aggressively, but so far no line has been built.
The Athens-to-Atlanta line, nicknamed the “Brain Train” because it would link 10 colleges and universities from Emory to the University of Georgia, would cost $383 million as determined by a 2005 estimate. The estimate includes construction, rail stations and rail cars.
The Georgia Rail Passenger Program under the state DOT estimated the Athens-to-Atlanta line would divert 1.8 million drivers from the highways by 2025. It projected as many as 8,000 people or more could use the system daily, removing 5,300 cars a day from already overtaxed roadways during peak travel times.
Would an East Metro line have similar impact?
And would the feds fund the project?
The Federal Transportation Administration, a funding agency in the U.S. Department of Transportation, says there has to be strong local support with a solid financial plan in place.
It said money is available, but the application process is highly competitive with cities across the nation vying for grants.
“Applicants have to justify their projects while proving that they have enough local financial support,” the Federal Transportation Administration said in a Dec. 21 e-mail responding to a reporter’s questions.
U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a Lithonia resident, agrees that commuter rail could bring benefits to South DeKalb, but he remembers the long, frustrating history of passenger rail projects in Georgia.
His district includes portions of DeKalb, Rockdale and Newton counties.
“Unless or until the state Legislature and Georgians decide that transit is as important a project as building more roads, Washington will continue funding projects in Charlotte and Austin that are making a much stronger commitment to rail,” Johnson said.
Join the conversation
The idea of commuter rail revolves around the question of whether people are committed individually.
Are you willing to ditch your car a day or two per week in favor of alternative transportation?
Let us know your feelings at www.crossroadsnews.com or at http://www.facebook.com/crossroadsnews, and most importantly, call your state and local political leaders if you think commuter rail should be a priority.