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Commuter rail from Atlanta to Lovejoy is: ‘The Little Engine That Could’

By Maria Saporta

A commuter rail line between Atlanta and Lovejoy should adopt the tagline:

“I think we can; I think we can; I think we can.”

And yes, we really can.

Forget all the panic from the Federal Transit Administration’s letter to the Georgia Department of Transportation on July 7 saying it was “deobligating” about $45 million in federal funds that had been earmarked for the commuter rail project by the U.S. Congress for more than a decade.

Forget all the angst that came from a Norfolk-Southern letter that made it sound as though the railroad opposed commuter rail running on its tracks from Atlanta to Lovejoy. Its letter said that having commuter rail within six years was “simply is not realistic,” and that the costs in a consultant’s study were likely to have been “dramatically understated.”

That letter almost caused the Clayton Commission to halt its MARTA journey.

But in the world according to a commuter rail believer, my chant continues to be: “I think we can; I think we can; I think we can.”

This is not just wishful thinking. It is based on sound information and strategic thought.

Let’s start with the deobligating of funds from the FTA.

Dana Lemon, who represents Clayton County on the board of the Georgia Department of Transportation, said the whole “deobligation” news has been misstated and blown out of proportion.

“There was a misunderstanding because of the wording of the FTA letter,” said Lemon, who has had her facts checked out with all the powers that be. “The deobligating of those funds basically said to Georgia DOT, because you haven’t done anything in a long, long while, we are going to take your name off those funds. When you get ready to use these funds for construction of the commuter rail line, then you simply apply to the FTA to reauthorize those funds.”

Lemon went on to say that it would take an act of Congress to take those funds away from the Atlanta-Lovejoy commuter rail project.

“It’s in the law that those funds can not be reobligated to another project or agency or state,” Lemon said. “The only way that can happen is for Congress to change the law. That money is still dedicated to commuter rail from Atlanta to Macon.”

The timing of the FTA letter seemed bitterly ironic. The letter was dated exactly two days after the Clayton County Commission had voted 3-to-1 to let Clayton residents vote on a referendum for a full penny MARTA sales tax on Nov. 4 that would set aside half of a penny to develop commuter rail from MARTA’s existing south line down to Lovejoy.

The letter stated that the reason for deobligating the funds was because over the years, GDOT “was unable to secure the local financial share” of the cost of the project. The Clayton tax would qualify for that local share.

Keith Parker, MARTA’s general manager and CEO, agreed with Lemon.

“It is our understanding, after having discussions with GDOT and the regional administrator of the FTA, that the funds for commuter rail in the corridor remain available,” Parker said. “It is our intention to develop a plan to fully utilize those funds.”

Ok, I think we can work through the FTA $45 million funding issue.

So what about Norfolk-Southern?

Norfolk-Southern may not yet be smart enough or strategic enough to realize it, but welcoming commuter rail on its tracks could be the best thing that could ever happen to the railroad.

Our nation badly needs to improve our railroad infrastructure. By partnering with local and state governments to improve its tracks for passenger rail, it will be able to improve the movement of freight.

It is in our nation’s interest to move more freight and people by rail than by trucks, cars and air primarily for environmental reasons.

Other railroads throughout the country have been able to leverage the benefits of providing commuter and passenger rail along their tracks along corridors with far more traffic than what exists between Atlanta and Macon.

If Norfolk-Southern wants to take a problem-solving, constructive approach that is in its own best interests, it would welcome entering into negotiations with MARTA, Clayton County, GDOT and the federal government on how to improve its rail corridor.

Imagine if we all could come up with a shared vision whereby the rail-line is upgraded with some double-tracking (allowing for both freight trains and passenger trains to share the same corridors by letting each other pass).

Imagine fewer at-grade crossings where the trains can travel at faster speeds.

Imagine straightening out some of the more dangerous curves so both freight and passenger trains can travel at faster speeds.

Under such a scenario, everyone benefits. the railroads can provide higher quality service to their customers and actually improve the capacity of the rail corridors. And people would be able to travel on one of the most fuel-efficient, least polluting modes of transportation available.

Norfolk-Southern, and the same applies to CSX and all the other railroads in this country, would find another serendipitous benefit. By letting people enjoy the pleasure of riding on rails, they actually could leverage it as a marketing opportunity for their freight business. It would be a great way to sell the movement of goods on rail rather than on trucks.

Because I love trains as much as I do — that includes both passenger and freight trains, it makes me really angry to read letters like the one from John V. Edwards, Norfolk-Southern’s general director of passenger policy in the strategic planning area, to Rich Krisak, MARTA’s chief operating officer.

It is anything but constructive, strategic or in Norfolk-Southern best interests.

But because I have interviewed Norfolk-Southern’s CEO Wick Moorman more than once; and because I know the intelligence of Norfolk-Southern’s director Tom Bell; I believe the railroad will recalibrate its position so that it can contribute to a constructive future of Clayton County, MARTA, the Atlanta region, the state of Georgia and, most importantly, of Norfolk-Southern.

As I said before: “I think we can; I think we can; I think we can.”

Here is the Norfolk-Southern letter to MARTA:

Page 1 (click to enlarge)

Norfolk-Southern letter Page 1 (Cick to enlarge)

Norfolk-Southern letter - Page 2 (Click to enlarge)

Norfolk-Southern letter – Page 2 (Click to enlarge)

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.



  1. ATLpeace July 15, 2014 9:49 am

    For metro-Atlanta and any major city on Earth to gear up for the future, every alternate form of transit must be developed. Congrats and courage to leaders and proponents of the commuter rail line from Atlanta to Lovejoy. Think about it. If tomorrow, you woke up and discovered the government declared all new cars and gas were free, especially alternative fuel vehicles, what remedy would there be for everyone already sitting in daily grid-lock?
    Maria, your inspiring article has reminded me of this quote by futurist Tom Hurley. He stated: “We live in extraordinary times. Around the world we face systemic and deep-seated challenges in virtually every field. At the same time, in part because of these challenges, we are coming to see ourselves, one another, and our home planet in new ways. We have an unprecedented opportunity to realize age-old dreams of abundance and recreate our institutions in the service of all humanity and life.”Report

  2. DougAlexander July 15, 2014 2:35 pm

    Maria, I think we can, too, but as you know I’ve been on
    this journey with you, and I think that the State (electeds and GDOT) and the
    FTA are more like Roz Chasts “Little Engine that Coulda Woulda Shoulda”,
    which I’ve attached.I often feel that GDOT
    ought to go back to its original name of State Highway Department, because the
    last Commissioner who was serious about rail was Wayne Shackelford.All since has been not much more than
    I think it is important to note that what has not
    been pointed out about MARTA’s commuter rail and/or heavy rail proposals is
    that it would NOT take 8-to-10 years to actually “build” either
    system.Rather, because MARTA would use
    federal funds, the majority of that time would be taken up in complying with
    the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). In addition to the time, we
    would spend upwards of $30 million just to get permission from the EPA before
    we could actually begin making plans.The only reason it would take two years less for commuter rail is that
    it would be on existing tracks (plus, we already went down this way before, and
    although we would have to begin again from scratch on the studies, we do have
    the ones we did in the early 2000’s to use as a guide.)
    I believe that the most effective way to build commuter rail
    in Georgia is to get the FTA, USDOT and GDOT to step aside and let our local
    governments do it – they are, after all, the ones who really want it.The original plan for commuter rail includes
    something like 90 counties; I believe that if state law were changed to allow
    counties to combine for transportation projects, as HB 195 attempted to do last
    Session, and the affected counties came together for this purpose and each passed
    a half-cent SPLOST for commuter rail, trains could be running inside of three
    year of that passage. Why?Because,
    thankfully, local funds are not yet subject to the strictures of federal NEPA policies.
    (Yes, there is the State’s EPD, but its local rules are not nearly as onerous
    as those imposed by the well-meaning yet practically-challenged feds.)
    I say let the FTA take its measly $45 million with all those
    strings.Let’s get the counties together
    — WITH the railroads on board from the get-go — and let the people who really
    want commuter rail (that’s practically everyone who is not a member of the
    Legislature or part of GDOT management) move ahead.
    As Tim O’Neil famously said, all politics is local.When you get down to it, all transportation is
    as well.Report

  3. writes_of_weigh July 15, 2014 2:45 pm

    One assumes that either Norfolk Southern management has become so disconnected from the real world and prior (in cases, decades old considerations and decisions) made at the top echelons of it’s ranks, that it is currently running a true malfunction-junction of a railroad, unaware of prior legal agreements and obligations affecting not only their bottom line, but indeed, the rest of the nationally connected rail network, with it’s attendant transportation obligations to safely operate it’s network while efficiently and smoothly moving and interchanging it’s surface transport burden of freight AND passengers.
    Why not re-coup frittered away opportunity(-ies) and  dollars? See below from Saporta Reports………..
    One wonders if Tom Bell knew W. Graham Claytor, Jr., former Southern Railway chief counsel(to D. W. Brosnan), former President, Southern Railway(a Norfolk Southern component railroad), former Secretary of the U.S. Navy, and last but not least, a former Amtrak President. One wonders if the two, or others, “positioned” themselves to profit from “deals” directly damaging to Georgia’s passenger and freight rail operational future(s)(in the 1970’s, and 80’s) which have cost the taxpayers, untold hundreds of millions of dollars by legal manipulation of (then)regulated passenger rail operations(anyone remember the Nancy Hanks or the Man ‘O War operated by NS(SOUTHERN Rwy) subsidiary Central of Georgia. C of GA?), yes,THAT railroad which “joined” Amtrak, only to discontinue multiple passenger trains and routes serving Atlanta(and Clayton County) from the likes of Macon and Columbus. The City of Miami, which at Amtrak’s inception, linked Albany, Georgia to Columbus Georgia, “lost” their passenger rail service(s), too. Mr. Friedman, an NS “big wig”, who has already nixed(in HIS mind at least) use of NS tracks to access the proposed “gulch” MMPT in downtown Atlanta by passenger/transit trains, now is deriding use of former Central of Georgia tracks through Clayton County, for heavy rail transit/commuter/intercity trains operated by Amtrak, into Atlanta, which Amtrak COULD operate, as it accepted Central of Georgia as a member railroad upon creation by Congress in 1970. Going this route(literally and figuratively) would recoup SOME of those hundred$ of million$. Just a thought, and a wink of a green light to innovation. SOUTHERN(rwy) SERVED THE SOUTH! NS? Nah.
    – See more at: https://saportareport.com/blog/2014/07/claytons-vote-for-marta-a-turning-point-for-regional-transit/#sthash.MRnthWkT.dpuf

    Perhaps, one day, Mr. Edwards may have the insight of a Wick Mooreman, or a Tom Bell, or a Graham Claytor, Jr., and have a more complete understanding of those obligations from the past, while not losing sight and insight of the future, but, from his letter to the Chair of the Clayton County Commission, that day is certainly quite distant. One also might assume that Mr. Claytor, rapidly rotates in his plot, upon “seeing” late developments at “his” railroad. Tempus fugit.Report

  4. Carl Holt July 19, 2014 9:45 pm

    Commuter rail to Clayton.Report

  5. writes_of_weigh July 23, 2014 8:04 pm

    Why not use what we already have?
    Georgia transportation funding (at least for transit and commuter rail purposes) has an easy solution. In 2019, the lease of the State of Georgia owned Western & Atlantic right-of-way is up for renewal. The 50 yr. lease (worth little more than a $million/yr based on 1969 dollars/estimates) is currently held by CSX Corp., which has incorporated the property into it’s system maps, and utilizes the line of railroad to link it’s mid-western routes/traffic floes to it’s southeast (Atlanta connected) network, over a more level(and thus much lest costly) routing, than utilizing it’s only alternative train routing via the more “mountainous” Birmingham, AL (ex-Louisville & Nashville RR)mainline. Outside investor groups may well be in a position to increase the value of the W & A  right-of-way by starting a bidding war on the route, or conversely, the State Properties Commission could negotiate in extracting urgently needed transit route upgrades/tradeoffs(think adding Marta/commuter rail operations(to Cobb/Cherokee/Bartow/(Athens)Clarke/Walton/Fayette) linking downtown Atlanta to any of the aforementioned counties/destinations on the rest of CSX ‘s north Georgia network. The W & A lease renewal(not unlike NS ‘s lease of the (State owned) North Carolina Railroad) should reap a windfall for Georgia’s dollar and rights-of-way impinged transit budget. One wonders if either candidate Carter or (Gov.)Deal is up to the task? – See more at: https://saportareport.com/blog/2014/07/wanted-leaders-who-make-tough-decisions-on-transportation-funding/#sthash.IS7RWQib.dpufReport

  6. writes_of_weigh August 12, 2014 3:48 pm

    The public has a chance to provide “stakeholder” input to the State Rail Plan proposal for commuter/intercity passenger as well as freight service(s) at GA DOT meetings today(8/12) in Dalton, tomorrow (8/13) in Atlanta(40 Cortland St.), and Thursday, (8/14) in Valdosta. It’s now or never, Clayton/Macon commuter rail boosters!Report

  7. The Last Democrat in Georgia August 15, 2014 6:51 pm

    The corridor between Downtown Atlanta and Lovejoy needs more than just commuter rail service….With Clayton County being such a heavily-populated urban county in need of increased economic development opportunities and logistical connectivity, the corridor between Downtown Atlanta and Lovejoy needs Heavy Rail Transit service.
    Heavy Rail Transit service should operate between Downtown Atlanta and the Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton (which the Atlanta Motor Speedway is a significant event center with major events that can generate much additional traffic on area roads) and maybe even on down to Griffin in Spalding County.  Regional commuter rail service should operate between Downtown Atlanta and Middle Georgia by way of Macon, Warner Robins and Perry.
    All passenger rail service should be self-funded with revenues from transit-oriented real estate development along transit lines so that passenger rail service can sustain itself financially and operationally over the long-term.
    Regional commuter rail service on the existing NS freight rail line would be a good start, but it should not be the ultimate goal and there continue to be doubts as to whether the current plan (which depends heavily upon federal aid, has no source of continued funding for operations and is getting pushback from NS which wants to keep the current freight tracks available to transport increasing amounts of freight rail traffic) is even financially sustainable or even financially and logistically possible.Report

    1. Lennon April 5, 2022 10:11 pm

      Commuter rail is Heavy rail.Report


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