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20-year-old idea of commuter rail gaining momentum

ATHENS

Here's an innovative idea to battle the traffic-choked commute from Gwinnett to Atlanta: Build a passenger rail line stretching from the city's downtown to Athens, a railway that could carry 8,000 passengers a day, create high-paying job centers and spark Atlantic Station-like developments along the 72-mile route.

The plan might be called ambitious or unrealistic - but it can't be called new. E.H. Culpepper, one of the region's key economic development officials, has spent 20 years trying to convince area business and political leaders about the potential of the Atlanta-to-Athens commuter railroad.

Now, Culpepper and other railway advocates appear closer to seeing the vision take shape - a railway that links the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Emory University to the thousands of Gwinnett employees who live on the Interstate 85 and Ga. Highway 316 corridor.

How soon could trains be

running?

"2010," Culpepper said. "That date has generated all kinds of excitement."

Four years may not be unrealistic, though, transportation officials say.

State legislators are debating how to fund a similar commuter line from Atlanta to Lovejoy, showing more Georgia lawmakers consider passenger rail a viable alternative to the area's traffic woes.

Much of the key infrastructure for an Atlanta-to-Athens line already exists.

CSX, the Richmond, Va.-based transportation company that owns the railway, is talking to local officials about its options.

CSX will need to be compensated for upgrades to the freight lines so commuter trains can safely use them. The company also needs to find out how sharing the lines with passenger trains will affect the freight business.

While discussions with CSX haven't reached the level of negotiation, former State Transportation Commissioner Wayne Shackelford recently said the talks were moving along and to check back with him in 60 days.

"We have definitely started planning with them," said Hal Wilson, state Department of Transportation intermodal programs administrator.

Initial costs to equip the CSX line for commuter trains may reach $373 million, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation. Culpepper is leading an effort to gain support of local cities, whose funding would help support local train stations along the railway.

"People don't realize how long something like this takes," Wilson said. "E.H. has been with it from the start and kept this alive."

Upgrading the freight line isn't the only work that lies ahead.

"It's going to take a sea change of attitude," said Steve Vogel, president of the Georgia Association of Railroad Passengers.

"The problem is the concrete and asphalt lobby in this state is extremely powerful," he said. "They call the shots."

How alternative transportation projects like commuter rail get funded is always an issue.

This week state Rep. John Lunsford, R-McDonough, introduced a bill that could threaten to derail the passenger line to Lovejoy. The measure would require that cities and county voters have a say before public money goes toward commuter rail projects.

Culpepper agreed that an Atlanta-to-Athens passenger line is ambitious, but the biggest challenge is "getting people to change their attitude that cars are the only mode of transportation in metro Atlanta."