The path toward passenger rail in Cobb County remains open after a decision by the Georgia State Properties Commission Friday.
The commission signed a new 50-year lease with CSX for continued use of the state-owned Western and Atlantic Railroad, which it has been using for around 100 years.
The agreement grants the state the exclusive right to operate a passenger rail service along the line, which runs from Atlanta to Chattanooga, passing through four of Cobb’s six cities and behind Cumberland Mall. Rail supporters say it could someday be a perfect path for business commuters or travelers seeking to come to and from SunTrust Park.
State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-west Cobb, was among Cobb leaders who met with Gov. Nathan Deal to push for such a stipulation last year.
Tippins said he’s not looking to bring passenger rail to Cobb right now, but he said if passenger rail comes to Cobb in the future, it should be along the Western and Atlantic.
“The quickest route to get there, the most economical route to get there, is to use existing rail line,” he said. “If that’s feasible— I’m not saying it is, I’m not saying Cobb would want to do that— if you wanted to do that, it makes more sense to use an existing rail line…
That’s because one of the most expensive and time-consuming parts of building a railroad is getting right-of-way from all the property owners involved.
“It would be so expensive, the amount of time it would take would be so great that it would not offer any immediate relief, whereas an existing right-of-way, you might have to do some modifications, it may take a couple or three years to do that,” Tippins said. “It made no sense to me to have those conversations and not reserve the right to utilize an asset the state already owns.”
State Rep. Teri Anulewicz, D-Smyrna, said she is optimistic.
“You still have to spend some money on building tracks because it’s not double track the en-tire distance,” she said. “I think it’s important to remember that the state reserving the right to have passenger rail is very different from them saying ‘there is going to be passenger rail.’ We’re dealing with a lot of hypotheticals, but having that option there is more than what we had a week ago.”
Anulewicz echoed Tippins, saying keeping Cobb’s options open makes good sense.
“I don’t know how the transit plan is going to evolve, but I do know it is very exciting to have passenger rail as a potential option,” she said. “I am just very thankful the state of Georgia took such a thoughtful approach, especially regarding what this lease means for Cobb County, when they were going through the process.”
CSX is expected to pay $1.2 billion to the state on the lease over its 50-year term. That is an increase of $509 million over the current lease, which expires at the end of 2019.
Anulewicz said she is also excited about another part of the deal with a smaller price tag.
CSX also agreed to sell the state 2.3 miles of unused railway to be used to extend the Silver Comet Trail for $10.
Anulewicz said that brings the trail a step closer to connecting with the Atlanta Beltline.
“That has been a very important thing for Cobb County for quite a while,” she said. “Yes, it’s a tremendous amenity for the county, but there is an economic aspect to the Silver Comet Trail. Getting closer to connecting the Silver Comet Trail to the Beltline is only going to enhance the amazing economic benefit of the Silver Comet Trail.”