Politics & Government

Macon Mayor Robert Reichert launches new rail push

ATLANTA -- Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert wants to get some of his fellow mayors aboard a train between Macon and Atlanta.

It’s been decades since there was passenger rail service between the two, but he thinks a string of cities working together could build enough power and money to drive a locomotive that the region needs.

But he will have to curve around a mountain of freight as well as find serious funds where there are none now.

Reichert said population and traffic growth in the entire region will make “alternate transportation arrangements” necessary.

“You think you’ve seen congestion? You haven’t,” he said.

If Georgia bypasses big infrastructure work such as passenger rail, “we’re going to ruin the quality of life that we find so wonderful down here,” Reichert said. “It is essential that we start now.”

Reichert started his latest push for passenger rail last month with a summit in Atlanta that included regional mayors and representatives from state and federal government agencies.

There they discussed some legal avenues that would allow cities to set special taxes to pay for rail development and operations. They also discussed a low-cost federal loan program for rail projects.

Reichert said what makes his plan new is that it binds governments on the local level. Then together they can raise the cash to attract necessary state and private partners.

Or, as Reichert put it, make local governments the “third leg of the stool.”

Two rail lines already connect Macon and Atlanta. The major one is farther east and goes through McDonough. The other runs through Jonesboro, Griffin and Forsyth. Norfolk Southern owns both lines and uses them to carry giant steel boxes and hoppers full of cargo from all over the world.

Reichert and other passenger rail fans are eyeing the Jonesboro line and would like to share it with freight trains.

But cargo traffic has built up in the corridor over the past five years as the economy has improved, said Richard Harris, Norfolk Southern’s director of corporate communications. For that reason, he said, it would be harder now than just a few years ago to use the tracks for passenger rail.

“Port growth in Savannah, Brunswick, Jacksonville and Miami has increased freight traffic on Norfolk Southern’s primary route between Atlanta and Macon to the extent that we are planning to move more freight on our line through Lovejoy and Jonesboro,” he said in an e-mail.

And if alleviating freeway traffic is the goal, putting passenger cars on rail lines might not be the best way to do it, said Charlie Harper of PolicyBEST, a center-right advocacy group in Atlanta.

He thinks there’s a bigger bang for the buck in letting the railroad focus on freight.

“Expanding freight capacity takes trucks off the road and helps with overall traffic congestion,” Harper said.

He also said that rail projects are generally done with private dollars, and he thinks Georgia would be better off spending public money to execute existing plans for public roads and bridges.

Reichert does not have a cost estimate yet for commuter rail between Macon and Atlanta.

Putting passengers on freight rail lines would require building safety upgrades, train stations and probably some new rights of way as well as spans of parallel track for trains to hopscotch each other.

Then there is the cost of running the operation. Reichert said he does not think ticket prices would cover operations.

A 2010 study put the cost of building the system at $400 million at that time. Operations, including two round trips between Macon and Atlanta each morning and afternoon, would cost about $25 million in 2010 dollars.

But the study, commissioned by the nonprofit Georgians for Passenger Rail, also predicted walkable station areas would spawn millions of square feet in new office, home and apartment developments. It suggested that subsidizing a train could be a good buy for trackside cities.

Reichert said he thinks the next steps for rail proponents will be a new, thorough feasibility study.

The Georgia Department of Transportation is now drafting an update of its comprehensive rail plan. It is a study and survey of the impact of rail in Georgia, plus a policy blueprint.

As it stands now, the draft would recommend spending millions of dollars on passenger rail studies as well as some engineering works across the state.

The previous plan, in 2009, recommended developing the Macon-Atlanta route.