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Hall may play role in future passenger rail
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Gainesville-Hall County figures prominently in passenger and commuter rail proposals in the Georgia Department of Transportation’s new long-range rail plan.

Even though an official document isn’t set to be released until December, officials are looking at Atlanta-Charlotte, N.C. rail to cut through the Hall area and potential commuter rail stretching 53 miles from Atlanta to Gainesville.

None of that means anything is imminent, however.

“This is a big picture type of plan,” said Harry Boxler, DOT rail planner, in an interview last week. “There’s not going to be a significant amount of detail. The purpose of this plan is to identify which cities to go to across the state.”

Hall has been long been considered a player in rail, with Norfolk Southern tracks running through the county. Amtrak runs passenger service through Hall and has a station at 116 Industrial Blvd., Gainesville. And Oakwood factors in a commuter rail station as part of Oakwood 2030, a document showing how some 250 acres near downtown might look in that year.

The state’s new rail plan is an update of a DOT document produced in 2009.

In addition to a forecast of rail usage through 2040, the plan also will “provide comprehensive industry data,” DOT officials have said.

And it will fold into other planning documents, including the Georgia Statewide Transportation Plan.

The updated plan is expected to “articulate (Georgia’s) vision for freight and passenger rail services,” and include a description of the state rail network, related transportation and economic impacts, and a proposed program of investments in the rail system, according to the DOT.

State officials have met or plan to meet with railroads, shippers, ports, transit agencies, transportation planners and transportation officials in neighboring states.

They are also gathering public comments, having completed a second round of hearings last month.

A document from those presentations doesn’t offer much detail, but one map shows a potential commuter rail line to Gainesville that would stop at Buford, Flowery Branch and Oakwood.

“We would want to look into that, if there’s a stop here in Flowery Branch,” said John McHenry, the city’s director of planning and community development. “I’m just not certain there’s funding or the ability to make that happen anytime in the near future.

“But certainly, we’re a railroad town and we want to celebrate the railroad.”

Transportation funding is a key issue not just in Georgia but across the U.S., as officials search for ways just to pay for the upkeep for the roads and bridges now in place. Congress recently approved a funding bill that extends into 2015, but officials are looking for ways to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent in the long term.

Hall County also factors into the Atlanta to Charlotte Passenger Rail Corridor Investment Plan project, which the DOT is leading on behalf of the Federal Railroad Administration.

Last year, the DOT held public hearings on the effort to address “connectivity to proposed and existing passenger rail stations, airports and other regional transportation services along the corridor,” officials said at the time.

The DOT is about midway through that study, Boxler said.

“We’re screening down the alternatives, as there’s about six different ways to get between Atlanta and Charlotte,” he said.

Unofficially, options have been narrowed to Norfolk Southern line through Gainesville, the Interstate 85 median and open spaces, or “greenfield,” in a swath south of Hall, or between Suwanee and the state line.

“We’re hoping the (Federal Railroad Administration) approves (those options) within a month or so,” Boxler said. “Then, the real detail work comes in evaluating the (options), which will take at least another year.”

Officials also always have the option not to pursue any alternatives, he added.

The state’s plan also addresses Amtrak, but in a limited fashion, noting the railroad’s current Crescent rail service between New York and New Orleans and running through Atlanta, as well as Gainesville. Officials also indicate needs at the Atlanta station.

In a statement from Amtrak’s media relations, the railroad said that it is working with Georgia about the plan update.

“We continue to have discussions with (Atlanta) and the state regarding the need for a new facility in Atlanta that would better serve the city and Amtrak passengers,” officials said. “Beyond that, there are no ongoing Amtrak passenger rail projects in the state of Georgia.”

Passenger rail also is mentioned in Hall’s 2040 Metropolitan Transportation Plan, a long-range planning document released in August 2011.

Projected congested roadways suggest more money will be needed for alternate modes of transportation, such as express buses and commuter rail, “to further improve mobility options,” the report states.

The Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization, Hall’s lead transportation planning agency, plans to update the plan — as required by federal law — by August 2015.

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