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Athens-Atlanta passenger rail gains traction

LAWRENCEVILLE - The sky was gray Wednesday but proponents of Athens-to-Atlanta passenger rail say sunny days could be ahead for the long-languishing project.

During a press conference on Lawrenceville's downtown square, supporters of the 20-year-old proposal released a survey that says a majority of Gwinnett County residents support the commuter train that would pass through Lilburn, Lawrenceville and Dacula.

After hearing arguments for and against the proposal that would link several colleges and job centers, 71 percent said they support the rail line, said Emory Morsberger, chairman of the Georgia Brain Train Group, which paid for the public opinion survey.

"This is after Gwinnett County voted against MARTA twice," Morsberger said, referring to two referendums held more than a decade ago that saw voters nix plans to extend MARTA rail lines into Gwinnett County.

"Support is building. We're now on track," said the Lilburn developer and former state representative.

A state Department of Transportation plan calls for using existing train tracks owned by CSX Transportation to create a 72-mile line between Athens and downtown Atlanta with 10 stops in between. Four would be in Gwinnett County.

Besides giving commuters another way to reach work, the rail service would also link several universities and institutions, including the University of Georgia, Emory University, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the recently created Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville.

For that reason, the nonprofit backing the rail line has dubbed itself the Georgia Brain Train Trust. The more formal name for the roughly two dozen business and community leaders is the Northeast Rail Group.

Its goal is to help educate the public about ways the commuter train would benefit communities along its route, and in doing so, build public support for it.

State projections show the rail line would take 5,300 vehicles off roadways during rush hour. Put another way, it would equal adding another lane to Interstate 85 during peak travel times.

That's important because traffic congestion is the most important problem to Gwinnettians, according to the survey. While 32 percent said traffic congestion is their No. 1 concern, 27 percent said growth or overdevelopment is.

That is a change from 2004, when growth was the No. 1 issue at 34 percent, and traffic congestion was second at 30 percent, said Mark Roundtree, president of Duluth-based Landmark Communications, which conducted the survey.

For the Athens-to-Atlanta line to become reality, elected officials also must get behind it. The Brain Train Trust may have taken a baby step toward doing that.

Five members of Gwinnett's General Assembly delegation and one county commissioner were at the 11:30 a.m. press event. All sported "Brain Train" stickers on their shirts or suit coats.

State Rep. Brian Thomas, D-Lilburn, said the public support indicated by the survey is "important politically."

"When you undertake a project of this magnitude you need to know the people are behind it," said Thomas, whose district is along the rail corridor.

"We're a growing county and I think we need creative solutions to ensure we grow the right way," Thomas added.

In addition to traffic relief and helping curb air pollution from auto exhaust, Thomas said the train would provide economic benefits to Gwinnett County and cities along the route.

Gwinnett County Commissioner Kevin Kenerly, whose district includes parts of Lawrenceville and Lilburn, also backs the proposal.

He said he supports it because it would help get people out of traffic congestion and home quicker where they can spend time with their families.

Kenerly said he also likes that existing tracks would be used, which would minimize disruptions for land owners. That's different from road projects, he said, which can cut paths through people's backyards and fields.

State Reps. Clay Cox, R-Lilburn; Hugh Floyd, D-Norcross; and Melvin Everson, R-Snellville also attended. State Sen. Don Balfour sent a letter of support to the Brain Train Trust, Morsberger said.

Two former state transportation commissioners, Wayne Shackelford and Tom Moreland, also appeared to show their support.

State projections show the Athens-Atlanta line would carry 8,000 passengers a day by 2015, with 80 percent of those riders boarding in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties.

The project would be built in two parts. The first phase would improve 36 miles of track between Atlanta and the Dacula area at an estimated cost of $311 million.

Later, upgrades would be made to the rest of the rail corridor so it could accommodate both passenger trains and the freight trains operated by CSX. The estimated cost for that phase: $72 million.

Money the state expects to get from the federal government would be used to pay for most of the rail improvements and start-up costs, with the state picking up some of the tab.

The day-to-day cost of running the trains, though, would fall to counties and cities along the route. That amount would be about $5 million, according to DOT information.

The Brain Train Trust is differentiating the Athens-to-Atlanta train from MARTA's light rail.

It says commuter rail is "not mass transit," and that the Athens-Atlanta line would be a high-quality transit option "intended to move professionals from their home or their business or from their business to business."

The countywide telephone survey held April 1-3 polled 401 randomly selected Gwinnett residents. Its margin of error is 5 percent.