Commuter rail start date of 2011 'ambitious, but it is possible,' DOT says

The Georgia Department of Transportation has everything it needs to start a commuter rail line from Atlanta to Griffin, except for an agreement to actually use existing rail lines, $107 million in construction funding, federal sign offs for the plan, enough money to fund annual operations, land for the train stations or actual train cars to carry passengers.

To put it another way, a 2011 start date for the service is "very ambitious, but it is possible," the department's chief engineer, Gerald Ross said during Thursday's meeting of the DOT's decision making board, which met in Perry as part of its routine practice of meeting outside of Atlanta.

Still, commuter rail remains a high priority for DOT Commissioner Gena Evans, and the line from Atlanta to Griffin has the support of Gov. Sonny Perdue. Macon Mayor Robert Reichert has said he hopes that means the line will eventually extend to Macon, as was planned years ago. To make any 2011 time line, the DOT needs to figure out how to fund operations by April of 2009, Ross told board members Thursday.

That's means finding a replenishable supply of potentially millions of dollars to cover the difference in what it will cost to run the passenger trains and how much riders are likely to pay. No one is saying the line would be self-sufficient, and state leaders have tried to get communities along the lines to help cover costs. So far, no deals are in place, and former state Rep. Larry Walker, who represents much of Middle Georgia on the State Transportation Board, said the legislature is unlikely to pick up the whole tab.

There is quite a bit of money in place for construction, though. The federal government has pledged about $84 million in taxpayer funding for the line. But that leaves the project at least $107 million short in construction costs alone, Ross said. And a new, more detailed, cost estimate is being done.

"I've never seen one of our estimates go down," Commissioner Evans said Thursday.

Evans said she plans to meet with communities up and down the line in the coming months. Ross said the department has to either update or redo an environmental study required by the federal government, decide soon what kind of train cars it's going to buy or lease and work out an agreement to use Norfolk Southern's rail line.

But it all depends on funding.

"I think that's nothing new," Ross said.