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Macon rail line decision may determine Athens' future

LAWRENCEVILLE - Supporters of an Atlanta-to-Athens rail line are fearful that hesitancy about a southern rail leg may lead to the demise of their own project.

This week, an intermodal subcommittee of the Georgia Department of Transportation is slated to make a decision about funding for the first leg of a line from Atlanta to Macon, commonly known as the Lovejoy Line.

For more than a decade, $87 million of federal funds have been waiting on the answer to one question - who will pay to operate the route in its fourth year, after a Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant is spent, Georgians for the Brain Train consultant Paul Snyder said.

Members of the intermodal subcommittee may vote this week to return the funds to the federal government, a decision Snyder and Georgians for the Brain Train Executive Director Gabriel Sterling said could severely hinder their ability to pay for the Athens route.

"If the money goes back to Washington, it's going to get spent in some other state," Snyder said. "It's going to be twice as hard to get commuter rail. ... The money's in serious danger of going away."

Sterling said he does not think a final decision will be made until September, when outdated ridership numbers are expected to be updated by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

But he said if for some reason the first leg of the Macon line meets its demise Wednesday, the chances of each of 12 planned rail lines in the state is in jeopardy. And without the others, he said, a lone rail line is like a single fax machine without a network to connect to.

"They want ours to be built, and we need them to be successful," Sterling said. "When you build lots of lines, all of a sudden, they're carrying lots of people. ... We're looking at it from an overall network."

Snyder said Clayton County commissioners originally promised to fund the operational costs of the route in question, but reneged on the offer after an election changed the makeup of the board.

He is organizing a meeting of other local leaders who may have an interest in funding the project Tuesday in the hopes of keeping the money that has already been earmarked.

That is the only holdup with the line, Snyder said, and he expects that once the DOT signs off on the operational funding, it would be just four years before it is transporting passengers.

"I don't think they're going to kill commuter rail on the 20th, but given the work we've done so far, I can't take that chance," he said. "It's way too important and makes too much sense. These projects are very closely connected."