'Brain trust' formed to push rail project

LAWRENCEVILLE - A group of movers and shakers are throwing their weight behind a commuter rail project that would link Athens to Atlanta with several stops in Gwinnett County.

Composed of 20 community leaders, the Northeast Rail Group wants to build public support for the state proposal that would use existing train tracks to create passenger service.

"Our goal is to build public support for this rail line," said Gwinnett developer Emory Morsberger, who is chairing the panel. "We are going to basically work to line up the funds needed to build it and run it."

The 72-mile rail corridor is owned by CSX Transportation, which uses it to move freight. A deal would have to be worked out with CSX and the tracks upgraded so they could also handle commuter trains.

Elected officials also must get behind the proposal that has been floating around since at least the early '90s. The expected startup cost for the train service is $383 million.

The rail backers are calling themselves "The Georgia Brain Train Trust" in reference to the universities and colleges the rail service would tie together: the University of Georgia, Emory University, Georgia Gwinnett College, Atlanta University Center, Georgia Tech and Georgia State University.

The train service would also help turn Ga. Highway 316 into a bioscience corridor lined with high-tech companies offering good-paying jobs, according to the rail boosters.

The "Brain Train Trust," which meets at the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, has hired a company to poll residents in counties along the rail corridor so it can determine public opinion about the project, Morsberger said.

The information will be used to help devise a public education campaign, he said.

Morsberger, who is known for tackling urban and suburban revitalization projects, said he got involved with the commuter rail proposal because it would benefit Gwinnettians stuck in traffic.

"Gwinnett County is suffering due to a lack of roads," he said. "We can't build roads fast enough to accommodate the people who are moving into Gwinnett and outlying counties, and it is hurting our quality of life.

"We have people driving home from work instead of coaching Little League."

Paula Hastings, a Gwinnett County Planning Commissioner who lives in the Collins Hill area, is also on the committee. She said passenger rail would "be the icing on the cake that takes Gwinnett to the next level."

"I hope (the committee) is going to bring an awareness to Gwinnett County of our transportation needs and how roads are not the only option," Hastings said.

Other members include Gwinnett Chamber President Jim Maran; Gwinnett Chamber Economic Development Director Scott Morris; Laura Ray, associate vice president of transportation at Emory University; Brian Leary, vice president of design and development at Atlantic Station; and Kerry Armstrong, senior vice president at Duke Realty.