By Maria Saporta
To those who want to start writing an obituary on plans to bring passenger trains to the heart of downtown Atlanta — not so fast.
The naysayers were quick to declare the inevitable death to the long-planned Multimodal Passenger Terminal that’s to be built in “the Gulch” — an area that encompasses several blocks south of Five Points.
The Norfolk-Southern railroad sent a letter to the Georgia Department of Transportation in early May saying that because of anticipated growth in freight traffic, it does not expect to have sufficient capacity on its rail lines to accommodate passenger rail to serve the MMPT.
First of all, let me express my disappointment in the tone of the letter that Norfolk-Southern sent to the Georgia DOT. The letter makes it sound as though it has closed the door to passenger rail serving downtown Atlanta.
It is quite a departure for Norfolk-Southern, which has been negotiating with the state of Georgia for more than a decade about selling or leasing what it had said was a surplus rail line going from Atlanta to Lovejoy and on to Macon.
Actually that’s been part of the problem. The state has been dragging its feet for so long that it’s no wonder Norfolk-Southern has become frustrated.
Meanwhile, Norfolk-Southern and its top competitor, CSX, are closely watching the proposed deepening of the Savannah Port, which is expected to significantly increase the shipment of containers in and out of the Georgia port.
So now the railroads want to reserve as much capacity as they can for possible lucrative freight business rather than being bogged down by having to give priority to passenger trains on their tracks.
Still Norfolk-Southern could have behaved as a much better corporate citizen if it had told Georgia transportation officials that they were anticipating a tight squeeze. Then they could have asked the community at large to help come up with solutions to meet everyone’s needs.
First of all, it is in Georgia’s interest to move as much freight on rails as possible. Why? More rail means fewer trucks on our already congested highways lowering safety concerns and pollution. It also means having less wear and tear on our highways — thereby requiring fewer dollars to maintain them. Plus, it is much more energy-efficient to move people and freight by rail.
But we should not have to choose between freight or passengers when it comes to rail. Quite the contrary. All the benefits that exist in moving cargo by rail also exist in moving people.
What if the federal, state, local and private entities could work with Norfolk-Southern and other railroads to upgrade their tracks to improve their efficiency (or even build new rail) so that they could handle more freight traffic and offer passenger service?
Under such a scenario, everyone wins.
The problem is that Georgia currently has no financial mechanism to invest in its rail infrastructure — despite how much sense it makes.
Federal dollars are available for states willing to provide a local match, according to Gordon Kenna, CEO of Georgians for Passenger Rail. That’s why some states, like North Carolina, continue to invest in passenger rail.
“The federal money is there for those who help themselves,” Kenna said. “The state needs to put some skin in the game. They need that to be credible with the feds, and they need that to be credible with the railroads.”
Meanwhile, we can’t forget that site where the MMPT is proposed used to have two major railroad stations that were served by more than 100 passenger trains a day in addition to freight trains. In light of that fact, Norfolk-Southern’s position sounds a bit hollow.
A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress who has been advocating for the development of the multimodal station for years, is convinced downtown can be served by both passenger and freight trains.
“Absolutely, even if we have to build new rail,” he said. “The MMPT project itself is progressing. The developers are talking to people all over the country.”
Kenna agreed passenger rail is needed downtown.
“There’s no question we should have passenger rail serving downtown Atlanta,” he said. “The idea of the Multimodal Passenger Terminal is exactly what it should be. It needs to be in downtown Atlanta, and it needs to have rail service.”
When pressed about their “no passenger rail service downtown” position, Norfolk-Southern officials softened their tone.
“We are happy to work creatively with the state to help find alternate routes into the city and to discuss possible routes on Norfolk-Southern lines outside the perimeter,” Richard Harris, a spokesman with the railroad, wrote in an email. “We have a good working relationship with state MMPT planners and want to help facilitate a solution that would be of mutual benefit for freight and passenger rail.”
Robinson said Norfolk-Southern has a significant interest in the MMPT project — owning both the tracks and the land, and that it makes sense for the railroad to want to protect its interests when it comes to negotiating with the state.
But it is also important to not lose sight of the big picture and what the MMPT project can mean for Atlanta and the state.
“This is a huge opportunity for the community to push us forward in a way that’s on par with the Olympics, the airport, the BeltLine and the new stadium,” Robinson said. “We are not going to give up.”