Norfolk-Southern: If voters approve, we’re ready to negotiate Macon-Atlanta passenger rail

One brick does not a wall make, but some bricks are more important than others.

In Georgia’s hot-then-cold pursuit of passenger rail, the missing item has been the working experiment – a short but substantial, inter-city line that could help us determine what is possible and what is pipedream.

Several weeks ago, a Norfolk Southern executive wrote a letter to Todd Long, planning director for the state Department of Transportation.

If voters in three transportation regions approve the measure next year, the railroad company is ready to sit down with the state and negotiate a passenger rail service between Macon and Atlanta, according to the March 29 letter.

Click here for a letterhead copy. But this is the content of the message from Joel Harrell, resident vice president for Norfolk Southern, to Long:

As you are aware, over the past 10+ years there has been much interest in the use of Norfolk Southern’s “S” line between Macon and Atlanta for development of passenger rail service. This corridor goes through the counties of Fulton, Clayton, Henry, Spalding, Lamar, Monroe, and Bibb. There is capacity on this line to allow for passenger rail service and Norfolk Southern has worked as a supportive partner in investigating this plan for passenger rail through the years.

If the Regional Roundtables, organized under the Transportation Investment Act of 2010, determine that this line should be on the project list, and if voters approve the referendum, Norfolk Southern pledges our continuing support to work through the details to allow passenger rail along this corridor.

Clearly if the project is supported by the three regional roundtables, it will be appropriate for state leadership to become involved in making decisions about the service and operations. Please feel free to contact me, at the appropriate time, to facilitate further discussions with the appropriate persons within Norfolk Southern on the issues passenger rail along our “S” line between Atlanta and Macon.

That the letter is coming out now means that you’re about to hear much more about a Macon-Atlanta rail line.

- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider

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88 comments Add your comment

gunga din

May 24th, 2011
2:43 pm

clearly a white elephant in the making. will never make money and will be supported by HUGE government subsidies.

bob

May 24th, 2011
2:45 pm

when did the last passenger train run out of Atlanta and where did it go? In 1960, we could go to the Terminal Station (where the Richard B Russell bldg is today) and catch a train to Marietta, St Mountain, Macon, Athens, etc. How great it would be if we could enjoy that vision again.

Aquagirl

May 24th, 2011
2:50 pm

So it’ll be supported by subsidies….unlike our roads, which are naturally occurring features and therefore don’t cost a dime.

DannyX

May 24th, 2011
2:50 pm

The odds of the Transportation tax passing without this on the list? Not good.

Add this to the project list and the chances of it passing go down to near zero.

CM

May 24th, 2011
3:03 pm

I support any sort of passenger rail, but to Macon…really? I’d say start with a line to Athens. That seems like a smarter way to connect cities, but clearly no one is asking my opinion.

Jon

May 24th, 2011
3:10 pm

The proposal for a “Brain Train” connecting Atlanta (Emory/Georgia Tech/Georgia State/AUC) to Athens (UGA) has been around for years, but it’s never had anyone put any effort behind it.

ByteMe

May 24th, 2011
3:20 pm

Macon?!? What the heck is in Macon, now that the Georgia Music Hall Of Fame is closing?

Between Atlanta and Athens or Atlanta and Savannah would be smarter. Which is why it likely won’t happen in my lifetime.

Richard Bagge

May 24th, 2011
3:29 pm

Just think… if we had this line ten years ago, everybody in Atlanta could have visited the Georgia Music Hall of Fame before it closed.

conservative dem

May 24th, 2011
3:32 pm

@ bob, I rode the Nancy Hanks as a kid, but why do you think NS quit running passenger service from Macon to Atlanta — it was no longer economically feasible, i.e. it was losing money. It would lose more money now. “gunga din” is correct – this would require HUGE government subsidies, but more accurately, it would require huge TAXPAYER subsidies. No thanks.

NEWTOWNMACON478

May 24th, 2011
3:42 pm

I think the Macon-Atlanta rail project is a Great Idea and is the best direction to start Passenger Rail in GA; I hope this project can become reality soon because it would have a positive impact on Macon and GA…. Hopefully if the rail project work, it will help divert some of the growth in Atlanta to Macon and Middle GA. VOTE YES!!! Macon-Atlanta Rail Project.

regsgridlock

May 24th, 2011
3:56 pm

Macon’s population declined 10% between 2000 and 2010. It has a history of corrupt/inept mayors (C. Jack Ellis among the worst). At one time, crime was so bad, restaurants wouldn’t stay open after dark. Most likely thing to happen at the mall is a purse snatching. Businesses are folding. Residents are fleeing. A rail line to Macon is the rail to nowhere.

HenryGrady

May 24th, 2011
3:58 pm

#1- A line to Macon goes through the Southern suburbs and would link them quickly and efficiently to Atlanta and the Airport. You’ve already seen Porsche move out of the NoBurbs citing gridlock and easy access to the airport as a selling point on the Soburbs. Gwinett, Cobb, Sandy Springs, Dunwoody…etc…need to pay attention. Efficient and smart commuter rails will spur growth.

#2- Byteme? Byte this…you can’t get to Savannah via rail without going through either Macon or Augusta. Durrr.

#3- It would also provide a rail link to AMS.

To those claiming, “HUGE Taxpayer Subsidies”…I assume you are also Anti-Road or you are just igrnorant or you are hypocrites or you really mean, you use roads, so lets subsidize those instead of trains….because there really aren’t any other choices. The idea that trains are huge taxpayer subsidies and roads aren’t is pure fiction.

Bill

May 24th, 2011
3:58 pm

I have to agree that the Atlanta to Macon route is of questionable value.

However, the taxpayer subsidy is a red herring. HUGE subsidies go to roads, highways, and air travel. How is that different.

Yes, NS quit running this line sometime ago, because they did not make money. And everything is the same economically as it was at that time, right?

Illuminator!

May 24th, 2011
3:58 pm

Just like when Marta came to Lenox Mall, vandalism increased and the mall had to add more security. Now if Macon gets a rail to Atlanta will we have to beef up security even more to protect us from their thugs too?

Bill

May 24th, 2011
4:01 pm

Henry,

#1 very good point
#2 yes, that occurred to me as well.
#3, What is AMS???

Illuminator!

May 24th, 2011
4:04 pm

Henry
You conveniently forget that roads are subsidized by the gas taxes we pay, trains are subsidized by the taxpayer!

Bill

May 24th, 2011
4:05 pm

Gas taxes pay PART of the highway subsidy, not all of it.

Matt

May 24th, 2011
4:13 pm

I would pay good money to not have to drive to my mom’s house in Griffin, about halfway there. Napping or reading would be a welcome alternative to white knuckling it with the commuting maniacs.

HenryGrady

May 24th, 2011
4:23 pm

AMS is Atlanta Motor Speedway. Not a huge deal…but would be a semi-regular $ boost assuming folks not camping would prefer to stay in-town and yet, not fight crazy traffic. Just an * really.

Denying the fact that the government has subsidized auto travel, the auto industry, etc. etc. doesn’t make it go away. Fact is that trains have not been on even ground to compete for over 60 years b/c the government has been subsidizing their competition. Conservatives, which I am, should understand that.

Regardless…to those who say the ‘gas tax’ pays for roads and that trains are subsidized…well, facts are a stubborn thing.

1) Federal Highway Administration numbers show that all highway user fees, including the gas tax, pay for only 51.72% of highway costs. (Federal Highway Administration: Highway Statistics. Forms HF-10 and HF-210)

RUH ROH!!!!

2) Amtrak covers 67% of its operating expenses from ticket sales and other revenues. (Amtrak: National Fact Sheet: Fiscal Year 2010.)

3) On a nation-wide average, rail transit covers 53% of its costs from the farebox (U.S. Department of Transportation: Federal Transit Administration. National Transit Database, 2009 Transit Profiles: Appendix A: 2009 Aggregate Profile – Top 50)

4) Unlike bus service, rail transit has a strongly positive effect on development and property values. While the up-front capital cost of rail transit is higher, the operating cost per passenger-mile is much lower (approximately 50¢ for rail versus 90¢ for bus) (U.S. Department of Transportation: Federal Transit Administration. National Transit Database, 2009 Transit Profiles: Appendix A: Aggregate Profile – Top 50.)

RUH ROH!!!! Somebody has facts and references!!! What the heck am I doing in the AJC comments with those. Sorry…I’ll go away and let you spout your ignorant ‘false’ conservatism.

pn

May 24th, 2011
4:31 pm

I regularly rode the Nancy Hanks train between Atlanta, Macon and Savannah in the late ’60’s before it stopped running. It shut down because the road builders, auto makers, and oil barons became more politically powerful than the railroad barons. Our entire U.S. economy became skewed in favor of the personal automobile, which has been subsidized for decades by gas taxes and heavy federal and local taxpayer investment. Huge fortunes were made by Georgia road builders and their real estate investor and politician friends. Road building is what built political empires, and made certain former governors rich. Just a short visit to an insider at the DOT to find out where a certain interchange was planned would insure huge profits in real estate investment. The system was rife with corruption. Road building became an end unto itself; many “roads to nowhere’ were built just to line the pockets of political insiders.
I rode trains, my parents rode trains, my grandparents and great-grandparents rode trains. Passenger rail was fun, relaxing and an efficient way to get from place to place. I would be glad to see it return, because it would demonstrate that the U.S. is finally ready to return to rational transportation alternatives that don’t involve sending a major portion of our GNP to foreign countries that hate our guts and happily use our money to finance creative means to destroy us.

Douglas

May 24th, 2011
4:36 pm

Illuminator, Gas taxes pay for only 70% of highway construction and maintenance. You pay for your local roads right out of your property taxes. And you pay for your car, it’s maintenance, gasoline (!), ad velorum, and insurance. You also pay for the police who try to keep everyone safe. And don’t forget all the tax money you pay to keep the airports open and air traffic control going. And those locks on the rivers and the dredging of the harbors… We taxpayers are footing the bill of ALL of this, with gas taxes and with property taxes and with sales taxes… If some of what I have to pay out of my pockets could go to give us an actual alternative mode that works, then I would like that very much.

But you really need to wake yourself up and realize that ALL transportation in this country — with the freight railroads being the least user of such funds — are subsidized by the TAXPAYERS.

Douglas

May 24th, 2011
4:41 pm

Right on, HenryGrady! Thanks!

joe

May 24th, 2011
4:46 pm

Two points to make…First, the only time I ever go to macon, is driving on the by-pass to FL or through it on I-75 to get to Hilton Head/Savannah…would never wanna stop there unless I needed gas.

Secondly, have you read about all the crime happening while riding marta lately? I can just imagine that would translate over to this passenger rail line.

No thanks, I’ll drive knowing that my safety is much better in my own vehicle, and we don’t need our tax dollars going to fund something that has hardly any use to most people.

Aquagirl

May 24th, 2011
4:47 pm

1) Federal Highway Administration numbers show that all highway user fees, including the gas tax, pay for only 51.72% of highway costs. (Federal Highway Administration: Highway Statistics. Forms HF-10 and HF-210)

Ruh-roh indeed…..mmmmmmm, crow on the menu tonight for some of you asphalt junkies. Y’all have no idea how much we spend subsidizing other modes of transportation, all those fumes have corroded your brains.

DannyX

May 24th, 2011
4:51 pm

HenryGrady, you may have valid points but I doubt voters in Fulton and DeKalb are going to want to help build and subsidize this with the new 1 cent sales tax.

Voters around here are already being asked to help the northern suburbs out of their huge traffic jam with the new tax. The suburbs turned their backs on MARTA even though they sure seem to take advantage of it.

This project would do little to ease traffic in Metro-Atlanta. That of course is the whole point of the proposed tax.

Douglas

May 24th, 2011
4:54 pm

A typical commuter train coach carries 140 passengers.

A four-car train of these cars can carry 560 passengers, and meeds three people to operate it: an engineer, a conductor and an assistant conductor, for a 187 passenger-to-employee ratio.

To carry that many with 50-passenger buses would take 12 buses, and employ 12 professional drivers, for a 50-to-one ratio.

It would require 187 taxis with three fares in each car, for a thee-to-one ratio.

To carry that many people would take 70 eight-passenger vans, which gives and 8-to-one ratio.

I know it’s hard to accept when what you know MUST be true because You Know It to be True, but as President Adams said, facts are stubborn things.

[...] Galloway got his hands on a letter Norfolk-Southern Resident Vice-President Joel Harrell recently sent to Todd Long, the [...]

Douglas

May 24th, 2011
4:58 pm

Joe. you poor thing. A commuter train is very much different than a MARTA train. For one thing the income level of your average commuter train rider is a lot higher than your average MARTA rider. The kind of people you are talking about won’t be riding a commuter train.

And imagine if, while you are piloting your car to the Coast, there were fewer of those pesky plebians in your way because they were on a train… wouldn’t that be nice for you?

Orient Xpress

May 24th, 2011
4:59 pm

As a taxpayer who would ultimately end up funding the proposed Atlanta-Macon line I am wondering if there’s really a need for it. I keep up with current events and I just haven’t seen that many people clamoring for a train ride between the two cities. Depending on where one lives in Atlanta, Macon is only an hour drive away.

If we’re only talking about a handful of people who would ever utilize this passenger line then the expense doesn’t seem justifiable.

Old Tycoon

May 24th, 2011
5:02 pm

Personally, I’d love to ride a train. But let’s not kid ourselves. Let’s not devolve the decline in rail traffic to anything other than what it was. Personal autos took over trains for local traffic because it was quicker, just like airlines took over their long distance business for the same reason. The government took it over because it wasn’t a profitable venture and now maintain lines for political reasons.
We do “subsidize” roads because we use them. It’s a use tax. Subsidies to passenger rail aren’t. They are a tax above the cost of a ticket (per use). I think there could be a profitable situation in passenger rail, however, their aren’t enough riders from Macon to Atlanta to make it even close. Now, if you did a high speed rail between, say Atlanta & Charlotte, you might be in business, something comparable to the overall travel time between the airport and the destination, but without the hassle of TSA, air traffic and weather delays.

Douglas

May 24th, 2011
5:14 pm

Tycoon, go back and read HenryGrady’s post. We “subsidize” roads far and above what comes in through the “use” or gas tax.

And why did the gov’t have to take over passenger trains? Because it had built, with our tax dollars, the highway system that we enjoy today. The government built the competition to the railroads, which were built by private enterprise. If the roads had been built that way, and you and I had to pay the real price for using them, I believe that the passenger train would have thrived in private hands.

Bill

May 24th, 2011
5:22 pm

Joe,
You are probably at more risk from road rage than you are from crime on MARTA. In 2009, MARTA had fewer than 1000 crimes, the vast majority of which were property crimes, while providing 51 million rides.

Less than 1000 out of 51 million is pretty small.

Aquagirl

May 24th, 2011
5:25 pm

Old Tycoon, saying we subsidize roads because we use them, so their use means they deserve more subsidies…..this is a classic example of circular thinking. It’s tremendously convenient to hop in your car and run to the supermarket because we have invested an unthinkable amount of time, money, and infrastructure in making your car trip second nature.

I agree, Macon-Atlanta is not where I’d choose to run a rail line. Charlotte, Chattanooga, or Athens are much better choices. But then again, Atlanta once was nothing but a spike in the ground where the railroad ended. A substantial part of our growth has been spurred by our location as an air/rail/interstate hub. It’s quite possible if you build rail to Macon it would spur growth.

Bill

May 24th, 2011
5:26 pm

Tycoon,
Grady is right about subsidies, but you have a point about need. I want train service, but we will doom it if we start with a project that lacks demand. Atlanta to Chattanooga, or Charlotte (Via Athens) seem like candidates for more use.

Bear 10

May 24th, 2011
5:36 pm

Aqua Girl,
I agree those lines you mentioned are good ideas. They are however out of the scope of this article. The Atlanta-Macon line already has existing lines and would be the cheapest option for a “trial run”

DannyX

May 24th, 2011
5:48 pm

“The Atlanta-Macon line already has existing lines and would be the cheapest option for a “trial run””

The one cent regional transportation tax would not be a good use for a “trial run.”

The only way it gets put on the project list is if NS has good lobbyist$.

Aquagirl

May 24th, 2011
6:11 pm

Bear, yeah, we didn’t build our road network all at once. The lines are already there and staying within our State would probably simplify the project. I’m for it, but like Danny X I have no intention of voting for the transportation tax. I’ve paid the 1 cent MARTA tax for years. Cobb and the other counties who use it make welfare queens look like a model of civic responsibility.

Chris

May 24th, 2011
6:17 pm

I won’t beat the already dead horse, but really…it’s remarkable how people use this argument about subsidizing as a scare tactic. Clearly not only are roads heavily subsidized currently, but it’s a little out there to think that strategic and/or public goods (econ 101) ought not be…last I checked the interstate highway system wasn’t a brain child or product of the “free market” nor would it likely ever have been because of the scale, complexity, legal aspects, and so forth.

I’d second the idea that Athens to Atlanta would make for a better pilot project. And I’d personally use the heck out of rail service to Savannah. But it’s also worth noting that, while I don’t think it’s the best choice, it’s also not necessarily about what’s in Macon, but rather how many people commute from Macon and from near in between stops that would instead opt for the rail service. If that ridership ends up justifying the concept, not only would it bode well for rail service to/from other cities, but it’d have serious implications for development/occupancy around MARTA stations.

AlanB

May 24th, 2011
7:03 pm

Douglas,

You are correct that “The government built the competition to the railroads”; however you’re missing a critical point. The government not only helped to finance the RR’s competition, they taxed the RR’s to help build that competition, the road.

From 1956 to 1993 the RR’s were taxed at a rate of 4.3 cents per gallon of diesel fuel and then watched that money poured into the Interstate Highways. Imagine being forced to help fund your competition!

That’s like taxing McDonalds and Burger King to subsidize Wendy’s.

ProCommuter

May 24th, 2011
7:43 pm

It sounds like many commenting on this article are new to the commuter rail issue in Georgia. The Atlanta to Macon route is the first up simply because it is the cheapest route and has the tracks already set out. The tracks basically only need to be upgraded and the route is ready. This is one of many commuter rail lines that are envisioned for the state. They must start somewhere, and this is the most cost effective line to begin service. As the multi-modal passenger terminal is built in the gulch in downtown Atlanta, the Atlanta-Macon route is the best route to begin so the state is not biting off too much all at once. In addition, this route allows a commuter stop to be established near the airport (possibly in the new aerotropolis near the new porsche headquarters).

All this crying and yapping you guys are doing is just so uncalled for. We need commuter rail. Period. We must start somewhere. Period. The second route the state wants to build is the Athens-Lawrenceville-Atlanta route, which costs three times as much as the Atlanta-Macon route.

Please familiarize yourself with Concept3 and the Georgia Passenger Rail Program.

http://www.atlantaregional.com/transportation/transit/concept-3

In addition, here is an old fact sheet to let you know this isn’t something people just drummed up for this SPLOST vote.
http://www.270peachtree.com/pdf/GRPP%20Multi-Modal.pdf

Steve

May 24th, 2011
8:11 pm

For those who don’t know the point man at GDOT for commuter rail resigned today. Seriously.

tim

May 24th, 2011
8:22 pm

Macon needs this because it is dying. I live in Macon and commute to Atlanta; a train ride would be beneficial. Would all you transplant yankee environmentalists complain if more lanes were added to I-75?

WillieRae

May 24th, 2011
10:19 pm

We can all go to the music hall of fame.

Those gas taxes are the subsidies for roads. What will be the source of the subsidies for the train?. Right, the income tax…for those of us who actually pay it.

Serious Robuck

May 24th, 2011
10:28 pm

Pro Commuter, your comments are dead on, and it’s obvious you’ve done your homework. The line would open Middle Georgia to positive development that would benefit the entire state. Unfortunately, it’s a progressive idea. Most Georgians run like scalded dogs from progressive ideas. Just read the comments on this blog and you’ll understand.

It. Was. The. Dukes.

May 24th, 2011
10:34 pm

Relax, it’s not a big deal. Just get the choo-choo’s running and ship the dollar bills and white girls to my house in the hills.

Joey

May 24th, 2011
10:36 pm

I would like to see a Public-Private partnership called “Georgia Rail” It would basicly be a mini-amtrak that serves Georgia and nearby out-of-state cities( I.E. Chatanooga/Jacksonville/Montgomery). The GDOT could subsidize 30% operating cost for 30% ownership in return, giving 70% ownership to private investers.

This would be a revolutionary idea that in the long run could make Georgia an economic powerhouse and one of the most powerful states in the U.S.

Timus, Powder Springs, GA

May 24th, 2011
10:59 pm

The only way Atlanta-Macon would work is if it’s just a stop on your way to Savannah. Tourist coming to GA would line up for that. Heck I would like the convenience of going down to Tybee and not having to drive. Atlanta to Macon……..not so much.

Bystander

May 24th, 2011
11:04 pm

ProCommuter, Thank you for that post. I’d never heard of Concept 3 before, it makes too much sense.

Alabama Communist

May 24th, 2011
11:20 pm

No doubt in 10 years the Rail system between Atlanta and Macon will be one T-model Ford coverted to Rail and will cost 14 billion dollars all paid for by the State of Georgia taxpayers if the country is not converted to the Chinese rapid rail system by then………

I'm just saying

May 24th, 2011
11:33 pm

Atlanta to Macon would rock. Let’s face it–we’ve got to do something about traffic ikn Atlanta–or hope Sherman comes back, burns Atlanta, and we rebuild with a much better plan.