Grand Central Terminal for Atlanta?

The idea has reeled in big supporters, but raised questions too -- including whether it's legal.

Congress long ago earmarked $87 million to partially fund a commuter rail line through Lovejoy, but Georgia has spent little of it, as state and local officials struggled to find funds to pay the remaining cost.

Now Congress is threatening to revoke unused earmarks, so state Department of Transportation board members and staff are looking to see whether they can spend the federal money on the terminal where the rail line was supposed to end, in the “gulch” area connecting to MARTA’s Five Points station.

The station would outclass any currently existing in Georgia.  Where MARTA stations handle just subway trains, the terminal could be fitted to handle everything from high-speed rail to Amtrak to commuter rail.   It would also receive commuter and inter-city buses, such as Greyhound. .

"I'm in favor of moving ahead with it," state Transportation Board Chairman Bill Kuhlke said Thursday.  While there were other possible options, he said, "If you do anything, at some point you’re going to have to have a multimodal station. So why not concentrate on something that we’re going to have to have anyway?"

Gerald Ross, the state Department of Transportation's chief engineer and deputy commissioner, told board members Wednesday, "That's an opportunity we think we could use the money on."  In an interview later, he cautioned that the idea was in early stages, that it was not the only possibility, and most significantly, that DOT had not yet verified that the language in the earmarks would allow the state to concentrate the money on a terminal.

In the meantime, DOT's director of intermodal programs, Erik Steavens, is in talks with city leaders and other agencies to determine what types of facilities the station would provide and how much space would be needed.

There would be opposition from Eldrin Bell, who chairs the Clayton County Commission, where the rail line is supposed to run.  "I believe it would have a profound negative impact" to move the money, he said.

The project could address the fundamental problem that has dogged the commuter rail line proposal: Mass transit ticket sales rarely pay the full cost of operating the system on an ongoing basis. One idea is to gain a revenue stream for the rail lines by building and renting out office space above the terminal.  DOT, MARTA and other agencies could move into that space, and form a reliable renter base even in a shaky real estate market.

If the federal government were to build out the Lovejoy train line itself as well as the intercity rail network now backed by the Obama administration, Atlanta would be ready with its central station.

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