By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on July 24, 2015
MARTA is moving forward with plans to bring a rail line to Clayton County.
The rest of the region is eyeing developments in Clayton because that could serve as a template for how MARTA could expand in other metro counties.
The transit agency has been meeting with Norfolk Southern Corp. about the possibility of using the railroad’s right-of-way to build a parallel track so that MARTA could provide exclusive passenger service on that line, according to Rich Krisak, the agency’s chief operating officer.
In order to see whether that is feasible, MARTA will conduct a “Norfolk Southern Capacity Study” to determine the availability of the railroad’s property and the possibility for the transit agency to either buy or lease that land.
The cost of the study is estimated to be about $300,000, and it is expected to take up to a year to complete. It also will determine where the agency would have to acquire additional right-of-way if there were not enough property in the corridor.
Negotiations have been sensitive with Norfolk Southern, but both parties have reached a consensus that MARTA will not be using the existing tracks. Norfolk Southern, which had been willing to sell the rail line to the State of Georgia at least twice in the last 15 years, now is convinced that it needs that line to accommodate an increased demand for freight traffic.
“I am encouraged by the fact that Norfolk Southern seems to be more amenable to sitting down and talking about the options,” said Jeff Turner, chairman of the Clayton County Commission. “We are still a long ways out from getting the rail component. Realistically it will take up to 10 years to get a rail line to Clayton County.”
MARTA’s Krisak made a presentation to Turner and his executive staff earlier in July in order to provide Clayton County an update with how the project was progressing.
During the November 2014 election, Clayton County residents overwhelmingly approved a one-cent MARTA sales tax throughout the county. The revenues of half the penny have been going to providing renewed bus service in Clayton. The revenues from the remaining half penny have been set aside for a “high capacity transit” system.
It is the first new county to join transit agency since the MARTA Act passed in 1971 — approved by voters in the city of Atlanta and Fulton and DeKalb counties.
Krisak said the MARTA sales tax in Clayton, which includes most of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, is estimated to generate a total of about $50 million a year. That means that $25 million a year could go to paying off construction bonds for a new rail line.
“We are nowhere near estimating the cost,” Krisak said of a possible rail line. MARTA will have to undergo several other studies to determine what mode of transit it would use on the line to Clayton.
In addition to the Norfolk Southern Capacity Study, MARTA plans to contract with the R.L. Banks firm to provide “technical assistance regarding funding, governance and negotiating strategy related to right-of-way discussions with Norfolk Southern…” That contract is estimated to cost $195,000.
MARTA also is planning to work with Hatch Mott McDonald to provide technical assistance and update MARTA’s commuter rail concept. That study is expected to cost $199,000.
All three of those studies are expected to take up to a year to complete. They will be paid for by the Clayton County MARTA sales tax being set aside for the high-capacity transit system.
It is not yet known what transit option MARTA would adopt on that line. The possibilities include heavy rail, light rail electric, light rail diesel, bus rapid transit or standard bus.
Having a dedicated right-of-way along the Norfolk Southern corridor, however, would make it easier to provide a rail service.
“Norfolk Southern has good relationships with MARTA and Clayton County,” said Richard Harris, director of corporate communications with Norfolk Southern. “While we have ongoing dialogue, we have nothing new to report right now.”
Krisak elaborated that talks with Norfolk Southern have been going well.
“Norfolk Southern expressed their concerns — that they would not look favorably on us sharing their tracks,” said Krisak, a decision that probably would work out best for MARTA as well because then it could build a line exclusively for its use. “The initial concept now is single-tracking with certain passing sites.”
Trains would use the same tracks for southbound and northbound travel, but there would be double-tracking in spots so trains going in the opposite direction could pass on by.
Krisak said they are exploring the possibility of all-day rail service with trains every 15 to 20 minutes.
As currently envisioned, the trains would originate from the East Point MARTA station. MARTA riders using the existing system would cross over to a new platform to board the Clayton train.
While everything is subject to change, the proposed rail map shows stops in Hapeville, Mountain View / Airport — International Terminal, Forest Park / Fort Gillem, Clayton State University, Morrow/Southlake Mall and initially ending at the Jonesboro/Justice Center.
The map also shows possible future rail extensions southward to Lovejoy. Previous plans have even envisioned the line reaching Griffin and eventually Macon.
Asked specifically if the new transit line would directly serve the Hartsfield-Jackson International Terminal, Krisak said it is more likely that there would be a shuttle from the airport to the Mountain View station or even the possibility of extending the airport’s people mover to that MARTA stop.
Krisak said that the early planning and engineering work likely will come out of the MARTA-Clayton sales tax. But MARTA is expecting that the federal government would cover half of the costs of constructing the line through its “New Starts” program.
The planning work is expected to take up to three years, and construction could take another seven years, depending on which mode is chosen.
MARTA has proposed establishing a “Clayton County High Capacity Advisory Group” to provide input on Clayton County’s transit needs as well as serve as a sounding board for the project team.
The group likely would provide feedback on the direction of the studies and on what mode of transit they would choose. MARTA also hopes that the group could provide outside influence and opinion on proposed funding, operations and marketing.
In their presentation to Clayton County’s Turner, transit officials suggested that the advisory group would have a total of eight members — three from MARTA and five external representatives.
It proposed that those five members be an elected official, a member of the development community, a neighborhood representative, an official from the academic community, and someone from the business community.
Turner said he would like to discuss that proposal and other elements of MARTA’s presentation with his fellow commissioners.
“When they made their presentation, I thought it was a good idea to get representation from all over Clayton County,” Turner said. “But that’s something we need to take to the board.”
Meanwhile, Turner is following the developments with MARTA closely.
“I’m encouraged with how things are going,” said Turner, who said no decision about transit mode has been made. “All options are on the table. But the expectation in Clayton County is heavy rail. We are open as long as we have the rail component.”
Meanwhile, MARTA will be expanding its bus service in Clayton County in early August.