Decades-old plans to build a mammoth train and bus passenger terminal in downtown Atlanta are getting a new look, in part because of growing interest in mass transit by once-reluctant Republican lawmakers.
The state Senate Transportation Committee on Thursday held a hearing on a proposed “multimodal passenger terminal” in the Gulch area of downtown – the first sign of life for the $1.5 billion project in nearly four years.
Supporters say the terminal could serve as the hub for MARTA, regional passenger train service, local and regional buses and other transportation services. And they say it could spark a building boom in one of the largest undeveloped areas of downtown – 119 acres near the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Georgia World Congress Center and other tourist draws.
“For the world-class city we are, for us not to have a Union Station in our city is really tragic,” said Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, the committee chairman. “I think we can do it. We just have to have the political will and courage to make it happen.”
But it’s clear the same obstacles that have stalled the project for years remain: funding and ambivalence from the freight railroad companies that own most of the property.
There’s still no clear source of funding for the project. And the railroads – CSX and Norfolk Southern – remain noncommittal.
On Thursday, CSX regional vice president Craig Camuso said the state must update a four-year-old study of the project to account for new developments, like the stadium and changing transportation technology.
“We’d like to see the study refreshed before we could even comment,” Camuso said.
For decades, advocates have envisioned creating a major mass transit hub in downtown Atlanta – something akin to New York’s Grand Central Station. But proposals went nowhere.
The Georgia Department of Transportation paid a private development team $12.2 million to study the idea in 2011.
In 2013, they unveiled a $1.5 billion plan to build a passenger terminal – a place where you could catch a bus or train to the suburbs or to Charlotte or Birmingham – surrounded by a new commercial district and a park. A computer animation of the plan shows glass skyscrapers and sleek streetcars mixing with manicured lawns and tasteful fountains – an urban paradise for pedestrians and bicyclists.
But support for that grand vision fizzled. The railroads wanted reassurances that freight movement would not be affected. And political leaders didn’t make the project a priority.
Beach believes the time is right to revive the idea – either in the Gulch or elsewhere in Atlanta.
The Republicans who control state government have long resisted mass transit. But in recent years they have seen its economic development potential as companies like State Farm and Mercedes Benz have built new facilities along MARTA lines. And they’ve warmed to the idea of state funding for MARTA and other transit agencies.
House Speaker David Ralston has created a commission to study mass transit funding and governance statewide. Plans for a similar commission also passed the Senate this year.
Meanwhile, the passenger terminal isn’t the only idea for redeveloping the area. The Atlanta Hawks are interested in acquiring parcels in the Gulch as part of an effort to develop the area around Philips Arena. It’s unclear whether those plans would interfere with plans for a passenger terminal, or vice versa.
Beach said the momentum on mass transit makes this the right time to revive the passenger terminal proposal. And though hurdles remain, he rejected the idea of kicking the can down the road with another study.
“I think we’ve studied this to death,” he said. “It’s time to start building. We’re Georgia. We have to go big or go home.”
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