- By David Wickert The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Mass transit advocates fear legislation pending in the state House of Representatives could slam the door on a MARTA expansion into Cobb County for half a century.
Senate Resolution 228 would authorize the State Properties Commission to negotiate a 50-year lease extension with railroad CSX Transportation for the state-owned Western and Atlantic Railroad line between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn. The current lease — which expires in 2019 — includes a provision that could allow passenger rail service along the rail line, and some transit supporters say the line would be the cheapest way to expand MARTA into Cobb.
Though the resolution itself does not grant CSX exclusive rights to the line, transit supporters fear the state could negotiate away the right to passenger service on its own rail line. They want lawmakers to amend the resolution to require a lease provision allowing commuter rail.
At a House State Properties Committee meeting Tuesday, State Property Officer Steven Stancil assured lawmakers a commuter rail provision would be included in the lease — and may be stronger than the existing language. But he’d prefer lawmakers not tie the agency’s hands by stipulating that the provision be included.
That wiggle room made some transit advocates and lawmakers nervous. If the resolution passes, the lease would not come back to the General Assembly for approval.
“The lease is going to be secret until it’s signed,” Jim Dexter of Citizens for Progressive Transit told the committee. “At that point, there’s nothing we can do about it for the next 50 years.”
The committee took no action on the resolution, but a vote is scheduled for Wednesday.
Cobb County voters declined to join MARTA when the transit agency was formed, and many conservative residents remain adamantly opposed. But many Georgia Republicans, long hostile to mass transit, have come to embrace it as an important economic development tool. The General Assembly is considering legislation that could lead to substantial state funding of mass transit operations.
The historic Western and Atlantic Railroad line could play a role in Georgia’s mass transit future.
According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, lawmakers authorized the line, completed in 1851, to open the state to trade from the Tennessee and Ohio valleys. Its southern end was at Terminus — later to become the city of Atlanta — where it joined other rail lines crisscrossing the state.
Georgia has leased the line to CSX and its predecessors for about 100 years. The state earns about $7 million annually from the current lease.
State officials and the railroad have already reached agreement on some terms of a new lease. It would run from 2020 through 2069 at an initial rent of $12.1 million a year, with the rent increasing 2.5 percent annually.
Critics are concerned the lease could grant CSX exclusive rights to the rail line, excluding MARTA or other passenger rail service at a time when they say it’s increasingly needed.
“Cobb County is running out of space to put roads,” Sierra Club lobbyist Neill Herring told the House State Properties Committee. “They’re going to need additional transportation.”
If MARTA or something like it were ever to expand into Cobb, some say the Western and Atlantic line would be the most cost-effective route. The alternative would involve building another route, likely at a cost of billions of dollars.
CSX Regional Vice President Craig Camuso told the committee the company understands that commuter rail may be coming to the Western and Atlantic line.
“I can assure you it’s been made very clear to us by the state that commuter rail will be a key component of the lease negotiation,” Camuso said.
Still, some lawmakers are leery.
“Once we pass this out (of the General Assembly), we’ve lost control,” said state Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City. “I’m a little nervous about it.”
A spokesman for MARTA declined to comment. Cobb County Chairman Mike Boyce did not respond to a request for comment.