ATLANTA - A planned commuter-rail line linking Atlanta and Macon should run along an existing freight-train route parallel to U.S. Highway 41, members of the board in charge of Georgia's passenger-rail program agreed Thursday.
The six-member Program Management Team also voted to supplement the rail service with express buses along Interstate 75 as far south as Locust Grove in southern Henry County.
In accepting the recommendations of the state's rail consultants, the board took a major step toward launching a statewide passenger-rail system that has been studied for the past two decades. It's also seen as a major component in plans to reduce automobile traffic in the Atlanta region and, thus, improve air quality.
"This may be the beginning of something that really enables us to reach out and grow," said board Chairman Sonny Deriso.
Thursday's vote culminated a weeding out of options for the Athens-to-Macon rail line that began with seven alternatives.
A similar narrowing process is under way with a proposed commuter line between Atlanta and Athens. The consultants expect to make a final recommendation to the board on that project in October.
In both cases, the consultants early on told board members it would be prohibitively expensive to build extensive new rail lines beside major highways. All of the rail alternatives still alive in the Atlanta-to-Athens study involve using existing freight-rail lines owned by CSX Corp.
The recommended rail corridor to Macon would begin in downtown Atlanta and serve Hartsfield International Airport, Forest Park, Morrow, Jonesboro, Lovejoy, Hampton, Griffin, Barnesville, Forsyth and Bolingbroke. Several of those cities are miles from Interstate 75 and its easy access to Atlanta.
"These older communities, in some ways, have been bypassed by the pace of development in the 1980s and 1990s," said Steve Roberts, the project manager for Georgia Rail Consultants.
On the other hand, the consultants' recommendation for express buses would take advantage of the close proximity to I-75 of such rapidly growing cities as Stockbridge and McDonough.
The recommendation calls for two trains per day between Atlanta and Macon and four shorter trips connecting Atlanta and Griffin.
One-way fares would range from $3.30 from Forest Park to downtown Atlanta, with a monthly discount pass, to $9.50 to travel the full Macon-Atlanta route.
Some board members said they were concerned that the trip from Macon to Atlanta would take two hours and 23 minutes.
"Even with traffic, you can drive that in an hour," said Jimmy Lester of Augusta. "You're going to have to find a way to cut that time."
But Mr. Deriso said the consultants' time estimates don't take into account the possibility that high-speed trains will be used for some routes, particularly those that will travel beyond Macon to Savannah, Jesup and Jacksonville, Fla.
Mr. Roberts added that rail commuters in other cities haven't been turned off by taking a few minutes longer to reach their destinations by train than by driving their cars, as long as the trains run consistently.
"People are more concerned that the service be reliable, dependable and on time," he said.