The nonprofit Georgians for Passenger Rail is conducting an economic analysis of adding passenger rail service between Macon and Atlanta, with results expected in mid-February.
Consultants conducting the study are set to meet with Macon Mayor Robert Reichert on Tuesday, his office confirmed.
Mike Ford, NewTown Macon's CEO and a board member of the rail group, said they will likely seek the mayor's opinion of how passenger rail would affect the local economy and whether Macon might be willing to support local funding for its operation.
Although passenger rail has been discussed for a decade or more without being funded, advocates say several factors might make it more likely to move ahead now.
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The biggest change is President Obama's emphasis on building rail networks.
The administration has a list of 10 priority corridors, one of which includes Macon. The state has applied for a portion of the $8 billion the Federal Railroad Administration is going to distribute to establish high-speed rail in America, said Crystal Paulk-Buchanan, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Transportation. She confirmed that Macon was included in that application.
"All the application work the state has submitted has made the Atlanta to Macon line one of the first priorities," Reichert said Friday. "We are very encouraged about the recent developments around intercity passenger rail and high-speed passenger rail."
But Reichert and Paulk-Buchanan pointed out that the grant would pay for only capital costs, not operations.
Federal Railroad Administration spokeswoman Marquese Lewis said a decision on the grant applications will come in the next couple of months.
Meanwhile, the Georgians for Passenger Rail group has been in almost weekly discussions with state transportation officials and the governor's office to find out what it would take to move the Macon-to-Atlanta passenger rail project ahead, said Gordon Kenna, the group's executive director.
"What we heard was a lot of economic questions," Kenna said, leading to the economic impact study.
The analysis will examine construction cost, job creation and property/tax value increases related to rail investment, Kenna said. It also aims to identify ways to underwrite operation and maintenance.
"That way, the state doesn't move forward with providing rail with an open-ended operational funding commitment," Kenna said.
Funding options could include local tax allocation districts, sales taxes and property tax increases, Kenna said.
Reichert didn't endorse a particular method, but he said economic impact details will make local governments more inclined to help with funding.
Ford said he would support a tax allocation district for the central city area in Macon. Such districts basically let local governments pledge future tax revenues in an area for the sole use of improving that area.
Ford said a district downtown near the Terminal Station, where any intercity train would stop, might kick-start a number of stalled residential projects.
Ford noted that Terminal Station improvements have made significant headway in the last decade, and he said passenger rail would probably encourage the rapid rental of 20,000 square feet of vacant space there.
Atlanta, on the other hand, would still need to build a terminal station there, Reichert noted.
Kenna said Georgians for Passenger Rail was quietly formed last summer to replace Georgians for the Brain Train, which "ran out of steam."
The group is now focusing on the Atlanta to Macon corridor because that stretch had federal funds earmarked for it almost a decade ago, and it has more existing track available.
"It is important to transportation, but just as important — maybe more important — for economic development ... and allowing more to share in the prosperity of the Atlanta-Piedmont megaregion," Kenna said. "The consensus is that the development model Georgia has pursued, and Atlanta in particular, is built out, and we need a new strategy aimed at the entire state, not just one part of it."
With details on the rail still unfolding, the mayor said he will keep working with Macon's representatives on the federal and state levels for their support.
"Passenger rail service is a real possibility in the state of Georgia now," he said.