State urged to buy route to extend Silver Comet Trail via “horse trading”

Meeting of Connect the Comet -- photo by Haisten Willis

If all goes as hoped, the state of Georgia could potentially own land necessary to complete the Silver Comet Trail as soon as March.

Connect the Comet, a group aiming to see the trail extended from its current stopping point in Smyrna into the city of Atlanta, is actively urging the state to acquire the land from CSX Transportation through lease negotiations.

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The two sides — CSX and the state of Georgia — are widely known to be renegotiating a long-term lease for the company’s main route from Atlanta to Chattanooga. The current lease expires in 2019, and the Georgia General Assembly will need to approve the deal, meaning it needs to take place by the end of the legislature’s 40-day session in early March if it’s going to happen this year.

During a Connect The Comet public meeting held Jan. 22 at Vinings Bank in Smyrna, organizer Roberta Cook said she has met with local legislators to make the case for why the state should acquire the six-mile tract of land during the negotiating process.

“When they (renegotiate leases), instead of paying hard dollars for the lease, they do some horse trading,” Cook said. “‘We’ve got something you want, it has this value. Well, let’s negotiate.’”

However, railroads are powerful organizations that aren’t always beholden to the wishes of local stakeholders.

“CSX, the railroad, is basically autonomous,” said Cook. “They don’t bow down to anybody. I have worked personally with the PATH Foundation for a number of years trying to get this unused railroad track, and we could not even get CSX to the table to talk.”

The tracks are unused and rails have been pulled up in places, indicating at the very least they are unlikely to be used by trains again.

The Silver Comet Trail, converted from old railroad tracks once utilized by the Silver Comet passenger train, is one of the most popular multi-use paths in the state of Georgia. But the 61.5-mile route ends prematurely in Smyrna, whereas the train tracks continue into Atlanta.

The big issue has been getting CSX to cooperate, or to even get the company to come to the table for a discussion.

Silver Comet Trail zero mile marker — photo by Larry Felton Johnson

Cook said lease negotiations between the company and the state began about a year ago, and that the negotiations tend to be protracted. Technically the lease could be negotiated next year, but Connect The Comet leadership believes all parties involved aim to wrap up the lease renewal in 2017.

The state of Georgia, and CSX, are both aware of Connect The Comet’s intentions. The group has an online petition advocating for the completion of the Silver Comet with nearly 4,000 signatures, and plans to deliver its petition to the Governor’s office in the Georgia State Capitol.

“I’m not saying it’s a slam dunk to find the money (to complete the trail), because we don’t know what the price is,” said Wendell Burks, managing director of Connect The Comet. “But, obviously the PATH Foundation has major funding resources, including from some of the largest philanthropic organizations in the nation.”

The PATH Foundation has built many of metro Atlanta’s existing trails and has earned a reputation for building quickly and efficiently.

“It’s really a matter of getting CSX to the negotiating table,” said Burks.

As an alternative to selling the property to the state, CSX could also rent the land for a trail via a long-term lease and retain ownership.

Burks is confident the railroad could deal away some of the property, but added that it may not want to give up land east of Plant Atkinson Road, located just inside I-285 in Cobb County.

“We want them to horse trade for this right of way,” Burks said. “Right now it dead ends in Smyrna. It makes sense to connect it to the capital city.”

The state has owned the Atlanta to Chattanooga route, which used to be known as the Western and Atlantic Railroad, since the 1800s. Burks admitted the group can’t count on the state to negotiate on their behalf, but can contact legislators, present petitions, talk with the state properties commission and generally raise awareness of the project.

The Silver Comet Trail is utilized by more than 2 million walkers, joggers and bikers each year, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation. Connect the Comet estimates that linking the trail with the Atlanta Beltline could double the Silver Comet’s economic impact and boost property values by 4 to 7 percent. The group has a number of major backers, including the PATH Foundation, River Line Historic Area and Mableton Improvement Coalition.

Connect The Comet’s next public meeting will be held May 21.

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Haisten Willis
Haisten Willis is a freelance writer who lives in Smyrna with his wife, daughter and dog. He holds a master's degree in journalism from California State University, Fresno, serves on the board of SPJ Georgia and even rides a bike when time allows.

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