AP/Columbus Ledger Enquirer: Landmark Poll on Passenger Rail

April 20, 2006

” ‘Brain Train’ linking Athens and Atlanta chugging along”

Associated Press

ATLANTA – The latest attempt to develop a commuter rail line between Athens and Atlanta has been gaining steam. But the so-called “Brain Train” still has a long way to go before it starts making headway.

Business leaders, academics and community activists have banded together to back the train line, which would link the flagship University of Georgia with Emory University, Georgia Tech, Georgia State and the Atlanta University Center.

Aside from connecting the schools, the project would also give residents of Atlanta’s traffic-choked northeastern suburbs an alternate route to the city by moving an estimated 10,000 passengers a day.

“People are upset. The top is blowing off. We need another way to get to work, and the roads we’ve got aren’t going to do it,” said Emory Morsberger, a Gwinnett developer who focuses on rehabilitation projects.

The organization he chairs, the Georgia Brain Train Group, has raised $60,000 to spread information on the plan and lobby local lawmakers for support.

The $350,000 that the group hopes to raise to promote the rail project is meager compared to the cost of the project.

Although planners hope it could piggyback on existing rail lines, the total cost for the 72-mile route would likely top $370 million. And once the trains are running, one estimate predicts it could still cost $6 million above the annual revenue from fares to keep them running.

But backers say the existing train lines connecting the cities could save millions of dollars and allow transit officials to avoid having to condemn property.

“This will have a huge impact on the quality of life from Atlanta to Athens,” said Morsberger. “And it will do it cost effectively and quickly. This can be operable in five years.”

It won’t be an easy sell.

For two decades, attempts to develop a passenger railway have stalled. And state lawmakers have historically been reluctant to fund mass transit programs aimed at easing Atlanta’s traffic woes. Unlike most public transit systems, MARTA, the city’s subway system, receives no state operating funds.

Mark Rountree, president of a public relations company that backs the program, said recent developments may signal that times are changing.

The state’s first commuter rail line, a 26-mile line connecting Atlanta with Clayton County’s Lovejoy, could begin moving passengers within two years.

And a poll conducted by Rountree’s firm, Duluth-based Landmark Communications, said that 75 percent of the 400 Gwinnett County residents interviewed support passenger rail service.

“There’s a clear consensus that a rail service is needed,” he said. “Traffic and traffic-related issues is the biggest issue in the county. And it’s somehow escaping the county.”

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