MARTA may scrap plans for Clayton County rail line

MARTA and Clayton County may scrap plans for a commuter rail line through the county because a freight railroad won’t allow passenger trains in its right of way.

MARTA had hoped to build a passenger rail line connecting its East Point Station to Jonesboro and Lovejoy. The agency planned to construct the line on existing Norfolk Southern railroad right of way, but MARTA CEO Jeffrey Parker told county commissioners Tuesday the freight giant will not permit the passenger trains on its corridor.

That means MARTA would have to acquire nearly 300 business and residential parcels, most of them in Clayton County for the commuter line. That would escalate the price of a project expected to cost $1.7 billion to $2.3 billion to build.

“Without the ability to share the existing rail corridor with the railroad, the impacts of that project are immense and will make the project difficult to deliver,” he told commissioners.

MARTA now will reconsider its options for the East Point to Lovejoy line, which could include a bus rapid transit line.

In a written statement, Norfolk Southern cited a 2016 study that found MARTA could acquire a path for a commuter rail line that is “parallel, independent and physically separated” from its tracks. It said that approach would allow commuter rail and “serve the growing needs of freight customers.”

“We remain open to working toward this approach so we may collectively serve the needs of all stakeholders,” Norfolk Southern said.

Clayton officials said they remain hopeful that something can be worked out to keep their commuter rail dreams alive, even if the chances are slim.

“The update wasn’t encouraging,” Clayton County Commission Chairman Jeff Turner said of Parker’s presentation before the board, “but at the same time we’re still looking at it.”

Turner said he hopes that federal officials can still be persuaded to fund the project, even if comes later than the county had hoped.

Jonesboro Mayor Joy Day said she also is hopeful that something can be done to salvage the project. She once lived in Germany and said travel between communities was much easier than in the U.S. because of the network of trains.

“Not only do we need the rail, the whole metropolitan area needs a rail system that is connecting all of us,” she said.

The apparent demise of MARTA’s plans for commuter rail is a major setback for its Clayton expansion, made possible when county voters approved a new 1-cent transit sales tax in 2014.

With half the proceeds from the tax, MARTA launched local bus service in Clayton County the following year. It’s setting aside the other half for future high-capacity transit services and has about $148 million in reserves from proceeds from the Clayton tax.

In 2018, MARTA approved plans for two new lines. It proposed a bus rapid transit line from Southlake Mall to College Park station. That line is expected to begin service in 2026.

And it identified commuter rail as its preferred alternative for the 22-mile route from East Point station to Lovejoy. The line was tentatively set to begin construction in 2023, with service starting in 2027.

But MARTA was counting on Norfolk Southern to let it run passenger trains on its freight right of way.

“They say they want to maintain the full capacity of their freight corridor,” Parker told commissioners. “All of these impacts come out of that fact.”

Building its own tracks would require MARTA to acquire miles of right of way, condemn hundreds of business and residential parcels and construct new bridges, the transportation agency said in a meeting with reporters Wednesday. It would also require three to four years of environmental impact studies and could run into legal battles between homeowners and jurisdictions.

“We don’t see a path forward because of the cost,” MARTA Senior Director Government and Community Affairs Colleen Kiernan said.

With commuter rail seemingly out of the question, MARTA must now decide what kind of transit makes sense for the East Point to Lovejoy line. Bus rapid transit is one option, though the specific type of transit will be determined through a new analysis of alternatives. Parker said that will take 12 to 18 months.

The MARTA Board will make the ultimate decision about whether to proceed with commuter rail or try a different transit mode.

“Either way, if it’s going to be commuter rail or the BRT, it’s going to be a good thing for the residents of Clayton County,” Forest Park City Manager Marc-Antonie Cooper said.