ATLANTA -- Passenger rail service between Macon and Atlanta vanished in 1971 with the last journey of the train called the Nancy Hanks. Voters south of Atlanta are set to decide in November if they want to try to put a new train back on some of her old tracks.
Rail in Clayton County is still far from settled -- and far from Macon, but rail advocates want it to be the first step in resurrecting the Nancy Hanks.
“At least it would be a start, and it might be a reason for people outside Clayton to say, ‘Well, let’s try to build on this,’” said Gordon Kenna, CEO of Georgians for Passenger Rail, a Macon-based nonprofit that advocates for passenger rail statewide.
Norfolk Southern freight trains slice through Clayton County on those rails, which connect Atlanta, Macon and the port of Savannah.
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Atlanta’s transit operator is in preliminary talks with Norfolk Southern about using that rail or its right of way for commuter trains. The Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority’s full pitch to Clayton voters is a bus network throughout the county plus a yet-to-be finalized rapid transit option. One of those rapid transit options, pending talks with Norfolk Southern, is rush-hour passenger service via the rails from Jonesboro to East Point by 2022. In East Point, train passengers could transfer to the MARTA subway.
But unless and until Clayton voters approve a sales tax, there’s little incentive for Norfolk Southern and other stakeholders to talk seriously on big-ticket items such as rail upgrades, fees and scheduling that can fit the railroad’s obligations to its customers.
Georgia has jilted Norfolk Southern before, most recently in 2012 when voters rejected a penny sales tax that included seed money for passenger rail.
Indeed, even if the Clayton tax passes, there’s no guarantee that MARTA and Norfolk Southern can cut a deal.
In that case, MARTA would build a Clayton bus rapid transit system instead -- a trunk line of speedy buses in dedicated lanes.
Rail “anywhere in Clayton would be great for us,” said Macon Mayor Robert Reichert, an ardent rail backer. “You could drive to Clayton, park and go anywhere.”
He wants to see the whole Atlanta-Macon route opened, which he said would help save future generations from gridlock, or as he put it, keep “us from fouling our own nest.”
Given the region’s population growth, he said, “don’t let Georgia fall behind the eight ball in transport.” If that happens, “we lose the competitive edge we got with Hartsfield,” the airport that makes Atlanta the Deep South’s dominant air hub.
Macon Transit Authority CEO Richard Jones said his organization supports intercity rail, but he pointed out that it takes a lot of coordination.
“No matter what you do on rail, you need local support and you need state support to encourage federal support,” he said.
What that means is the federal government is not keen to fund works unless states, counties and cities match funds.
What’s on Clayton’s referendum is just that: a stream of money protected from annual budget wrangles and socked into a rapid transit escrow account.
Clayton’s tax would increase about $45 million to $50 million a year, according to estimates by both the county and MARTA. Each year, about half of that would go into the escrow account. MARTA proposes to leverage that money to tap additional federal funds.
Shared rail would cost about $268 million to build, according to a MARTA estimate. Exclusive rail, about $415 million. That’s on a route of fewer than 20 miles.
A $45 million pot of money is already set aside in Washington for construction of facilities on any Atlanta-Griffin-Macon surface transportation project that meets Federal Transit Administration approval.
“The project sponsor, whether the Georgia Department of Transportation or another entity, would need to apply to FTA for funding through the normal grant application process,” a GDOT spokesperson said in a written statement.
Meanwhile, GDOT is trying to find out what Georgians want from their rails. They are in the process of updating the State Rail Plan, a document last updated in 2009 that’s meant to coordinate and combine freight and passenger rail planning.
Hearings are being held next week in Dalton, Atlanta and Valdosta.