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Commuter rail offers appealing alternative to sitting in traffic

LAWRENCEVILLE - Mired again in afternoon gridlock, Wanda Teichert uses her imagination.

What if, instead of bemoaning Atlanta traffic, she could take a commuter train from her job at Emory University in Decatur to her home in Lilburn? What if she could catch up on work or read that book about raising two boys - the one she never has time to finish.

A train like that would make her morning commute easier, she thinks.

No need to get up at 5 a.m., run the kids to day care and rush to her car pool. She could just catch the train at the station near her home and grab a nap on the way into work.

Teichert is one of thousands of Gwinnett residents who leave the suburbs every day for jobs inside the Perimeter. She is also one of many irritated commuters ready to hop on board a train that would bypass all that traffic on a proposed 72-mile Athens-to-Atlanta railway.

The train - just a proposal for now - would travel on an upgraded CSX freight line that parallels Ga. Highway 316, cuts southwest though Lawrenceville, Lilburn and Tucker and runs into Atlanta.

It could handle 8,000 trips a day, and at least 80 percent of passengers would board at Gwinnett and DeKalb County stops on the way to job centers at Emory, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Atlantic Station in Midtown, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation.

"Right now, I'm at the mercy of the road," said the 38-year-old Teichert, who helps coordinate Emory's transportation programs. "I think a lot of people like me are frustrated by the commute and want this train as an alternative."

Recent studies back her up.

About 70 percent of Gwinnett residents support the railway, according to the Georgia Brain Train. The lobbying group of local business and education boosters, developers and employers paid the public for its opinion on the April

survey.

How quickly businesses and their employees support commuter rail could affect the idea's momentum in the state Legislature. That's one benefit of marketing the train to working

professionals.

Gwinnett commuters would pay between $3 and $4 for a one-way trip into Atlanta.

"This train appeals to businesses," said Athens Chamber of Commerce Chairman Ed Graham.

"It allows business people to marshal their time, to answer e-mail, to correspond with workers, to get some reading done."

The train - a 20-year-old idea - enjoys its best momentum yet, but it's still in for a bumpy ride.

Not everyone is sure how the project will be funded.

David Doss, state Department of Transportation chairman, said the Athens-to-Atlanta line makes sense, but money is its biggest obstacle.

CSX, the Richmond, Va.-based transportation company that owns the railway, will need to be convinced it makes financial sense to share the line with commuter trains.

Capital startup costs, including converting freight lines to passenger rail could top $383 million, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation. But Georgia's state laws don't allow motor fuel taxes to pay for transit costs, and almost every similar transit system in the world loses money, Doss said.

Even if negotiations with CSX work out, where does the money come from to underwrite a projected operating loss?

"That's the single biggest problem," Doss said. "You have limited resources to fund this."

IF YOU RIDE

If you wanted to use the Athens-to-Atlanta railway, here's an estimate of how much a train ride to Atlantic Station in Midtown would cost :

Station One-way Monthly

fare fare

•(From) Athens $10.40 $8.30

•Bogart $9.40 $7.40

•From Winder $8.50 $6.80

•Cedars Road $7.50 $6

•Lawrenceville $6.60 $5.40

•Reagan Parkway $5.70 $4.50

•Lilburn $4.70 $3.80

•Tucker $3.80 $3.10

•Emory $3.10 $2.50

* Note: A shorter trip, from Lawrenceville to Emory for instance, would cost less.

SOURCE: Georgia Railway Pass, Georgia Department of Transportation