Passenger rail fans in Georgia inspired by release of funding study

Gordon Kenna: Executive director of Georgians for Passenger Rail wants to help cities plan for development near the lines.

MORROW, Ga. --- Prospects for a statewide network of passenger trains have risen lately, and supporters feel the momentum.


The Obama administration favors mass-transit programs over highways, and the State Transportation Board voted last week to seek federal funds to plan construction of a passenger rail loop connecting Atlanta, Athens, Augusta, Savannah and Macon, along with direct lines connecting Atlanta to Charlotte, N.C., and Macon.

"A legislator told me after our briefing last night, 'This is the first time we've ever had an adult conversation about passenger rail,' " said Gordon Kenna, the executive director of Georgians for Passenger Rail.

The response came after the presentation of a new report, released Tuesday by the Brookings Institute, that tackled the major hurdle of where subsidies will come from to operate the lines.

"Our objective is to be so successful on this first line that everyone in Georgia will want what they will have here," Kenna said.

The report calculated a complex "layer cake" for covering operating costs on the first rail line from Atlanta to Macon. Those options that pay more in early years would be layered with options that pay off down the road.

A transportation sales tax could begin generating money quickly for the $25 million needed each year to cover operation costs, according to the study.

Later funding could come from tax-allocation districts around the stations, which would increase tax collections as the property value rises.

Planned development around the stations is critical to funding, and Kenna said his organization would provide advice to cities along the line to help them maximize that potential.

"It's important to remember this really is a development strategy that's tied to a transportation plan," he said.

The group's board, which absorbed the Brain Train lobbying group that was pushing for a line between colleges in Atlanta and Athens, is mostly made up of developers. It has a $3 million lobbying budget for projects such as Tuesday's series of news briefings in cities along the proposed line and the $200,000 it spent for the report.

One critic of passenger rail wasn't swayed. Benita Dodd, the vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, hadn't seen the Brookings report, but she is convinced the low population densities in Georgia make train operation too expensive.