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Details of planned commuter rail under discussion

LAWRENCEVILLE - If it had tires, city officials in Gwinnett County would probably kick them.

Instead, they'll have to settle for steel rails, because that's what commuters will travel on if a proposed Athens-to-Atlanta passenger train becomes reality.

The proposal has piqued the interest of city officials in two Gwinnett locales because train stations could help them with economic development and revitalization.

But before they get fully on board, there are questions that must be answered. Among the unknowns: Who would pay for the rail line's day-to-day operation and exactly where stations would go.

"I'm excited about it, and I endorse the concept, but I just want to make sure it's done right," said Lilburn City Councilman Eddie Price, who along with the rest of the Lilburn Council was briefed on the proposal three weeks ago.

In Lawrenceville, City Councilman P.K. Martin echoed Price's sentiment.

"There are obviously some funding issues that we still need to work out," Martin said. "In principle, I'm for the project, but there are always details."

Overall, the proposal calls for the state to use existing train tracks owned by CSX Transportation to create a 72-mile line between Athens and downtown Atlanta with nine stops in between.

Gwinnett County would get four stops: one in Lilburn, one on Ronald Reagan Parkway, one in Lawrenceville and one on Cedars Road near Dacula.

If funding can be lined up and an agreement reached with CSX, trains could be carrying rush-hour commuters within four to six years, according to state rail officials.

Projections show the line carrying 8,000 passengers a day by 2015, with 80 percent of those riders boarding in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties.

The project, however, would be bitten off in two chunks. The first phase would improve 36 miles of track between Atlanta and the Dacula area at an estimated cost of $311 million. Afterward, six trains would depart each weekday from the station in east Gwinnett, picking up passengers as they chug toward Atlanta.

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 local governments along the route.

That part has not been discussed in any detail, according to local officials.

It has, though, in communities south of Atlanta, where the state is about to upgrade train tracks so passenger trains can run between Atlanta and Lovejoy in Clayton County.

Clayton County has agreed to pay an estimated $4 million annually to cover the system's operating shortfalls, or the difference between fare box revenues and what it costs to run the trains.

Lawrenceville

The Lawrenceville City Council was briefed three weeks ago by rail proponents who are trying to build support for the Athens-to-Atlanta line.

The presentation was given by E.H. Culpepper, vice chairman of the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority. An Athens resident, Culpepper has lobbied tirelessly since the '90s for the project.

Lawrenceville Mayor Bobby Sikes said he's all for the commuter rail line, especially since the county seat would get a station and park-and-ride lot.

"It is going to cut down on traffic on the freeways," Sikes said. "A lot of people will jump on that thing and go into Atlanta, and it won't take them too long to get there."

Sikes thinks the station should go beside a former train depot the city owns near the downtown square. The location would aid the city's efforts to turn its core into a thriving community with shops, restaurants and residences, he said.

There has been no discussion on whether the city would pick up part of the tab for the rail line's operation, said Sikes, who prefers using grants to pay for it instead of tax dollars.

"I'd rather get the grants than grunts (from upset taxpayers)," Sikes said.

Passenger rail will be needed in the future as traffic congestion becomes worse, Councilwoman Judy Johnson said.

In addition, the rail line would connect the recently created Georgia Gwinnett University on Ga. Highway 316 to other universities in the region, and it would give people flying into Gwinnett County-Briscoe Field another way to reach Atlanta, Johnson said.

During the briefing, council members were shown three possible sites for a train station: one on Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road near a new Wal-Mart Supercenter, one by the former train depot on Clayton Street and a third by the county airport.

Only one would be chosen.

Lilburn

The railroad gave birth to Lilburn in the 1890s, and now city officials there think it could bring new development to their sparse downtown - a potential rebirth, if you will.

"I think the rail would be a great benefit to the city of Lilburn, both in terms of economic development and just development overall," Mayor Jack Bolton said.

"It would bring more people to the city center and help make Lilburn a destination instead of just a city you pass through."

Bolton was referring to the thousands of motorists who drive through the city each day on U.S. Highway 29 without stopping to spend money in restaurants and other businesses.

Just off U.S. 29, the city's old downtown remains largely devoid of traffic with many people unaware it's there.

That could change with the passenger rail, Bolton and other city officials said. The train tracks pass by Old Town Lilburn, and a station would go within walking distance.

The state has identified an abandoned concrete plant the city owns on Killian Hill Road as the ideal site for the rail stop.

"If those motorists passing through are instead coming to a rail station, you hope they would on their way in or out stop and take advantage of some of the businesses that might spring up as a result of having a station in Lilburn," Bolton said.

One problem, though, is the city does not know how long it will hang on to the 22-acre site it bought last year for $525,000. Developers have begun asking about it, and at least one has offered to pay more than twice what the city gave for it, Bolton said.

Bolton suspects the city would be asked to donate some of the land to the state as part of the commuter rail project.

If a station does go there, a majority of the parcel would remain untouched, meaning stores and condos could be built around it, Bolton said. The concept, known as "transit-oriented development," attracts people who want the convenience of living near a rail stop.

As for sharing the passenger train's operating cost, Bolton said that could be problematic for the town named after a railroad superintendent.

"We're a small town, and we certainly don't have a large budget surplus," Bolton said.

The city is trying to lure residential developers to its downtown, and commuter rail would help get the mixed-use, higher density projects the city is looking for, Councilwoman Diane Preston said.

The new residents, in turn, would help support existing businesses and future ones, she said.

"I think it's going to be a real impetus for some new types of development," Preston said.

Price said, "It has the potential to bring good, positive growth to our area. It would encourage people to buy homes close to the station, and I believe cause revitalization and encourage new subdivisions."