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Poll shows strong support for Atlanta-to-Athens line

ATHENS - Voters in metro Atlanta's northeastern exurbs are even more enthusiastic about commuter rail than their counterparts in Gwinnett County, backers of a proposed Atlanta-to-Athens rail line said in a poll.

A sampling of 412 active registered voters in Barrow, Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties on May 8 and 9 found 79.1 percent in support of the project. A similar survey in Gwinnett last month showed 71 percent in favor of building the commuter line.

"The numbers are very clear,'' said Mark Rountree, president of Duluth-based Landmark Communications, which conducted the poll on behalf of The Georgia Brain Train Group, an alliance of political, business and academic leaders pushing the plan. "People are ready to see some action on this project.''

The proposed commuter line would link Atlanta to Athens via Gwinnett and Barrow counties. Twelve stops along the way would include connections to the University of Georgia, Georgia Gwinnett College, Gwinnett Tech, Georgia Tech, Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It hooks together every good university in Georgia and hooks them together very conveniently for the faculty and students and for those who work at the universities,'' said Emory Morsberger, a Lilburn developer and chairman of the Brain Train Group.

He said the rail line could be built for about $370 million and be up and running within five years. As with all major transportation projects, most of the money would come from the federal government.

Morsberger said about half of the projected $12 million in annual operating costs would come from fares, while the counties hosting the line would pick up the other half.

He said the purpose of polling voters in the four counties was to gauge the level of public support for the project before members of the Brain Train committed to launching a grass-roots campaign for the necessary funding.

Rountree said the strong numbers his poll found in favor of the rail line held up even after the respondents were given a series of arguments for and against the project.

For example, when told that the affected counties would have to share about $6 million in annual operating costs to keep the trains running, only 22.3 percent of respondents in Barrow, Athens-Clarke and Oconee described that expense as a "very persuasive'' argument against the line.

Rountree said that's probably because nearly half of the respondents identified traffic congestion as a major problem in their county.

"Subsidies do not scare them,'' he said. "This is what they want their tax dollars going for.''

After all of the positive and negative aspects of the project were brought out through poll questions, 68 percent of the respondents still supported building the line.

Planning for commuter rail service in Georgia, including another line from Atlanta to Macon, began more than a decade ago. But the projects have faced tough sledding politically, with many lawmakers from rural parts of the state in opposition because their areas wouldn't see any direct benefit.

But Morsberger said metro Atlanta's steadily worsening traffic problems should convince elected officials across Georgia that it's time to get on board with rail.

"We're trying to get them to realize that the metro area is the goose that lays Georgia's golden egg,'' he said. "If the quality of life in this area continues to decline ... the economy will suffer, and as a result of that, Georgia will suffer.''

Barrow County Commission Chairman Doug Garrison, who attended Thursday's presentation of the poll, counted himself among the project's supporters.

"I don't like to drive to Atlanta,'' he said. "If the rail was there, I'd ride it. It can't come too soon for me.''

POLL RESULTS

Here are some of the results of a poll of active registered voters conducted May 8-9 in Barrow, Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties:

•The proposal for the new passenger railroad line is being called the Brain Train. ... Generally speaking, would you support or oppose creating this new commuter rail line?

• Support 79.1 percent

• Oppose 12.9 percent

• Don't Know/Undecided 6.6 percent

• Refused 1.5 percent

•Some county funds would be required to finance the passenger rail line. The six counties served by the rail service may have to share together about $6 million annually in subsidies to support it. Is this argument:

• Very Persuasive 22.3 percent

• Somewhat Persuasive 29.9 percent

• Not Very Persuasive 23.3 percent

• Not at All Persuasive 16.0 percent

• Don't Know/Undecided 6.3 percent

• Refused 2.2 percent n Now that you have heard arguments both for and against the commuter rail line, do you think you would be more likely to support or oppose it?

• Support 68.0 percent

• Oppose 15.8 percent

• Don't Know/Undecided/

No Opinion 13.1 percent

• Refused 3.2 percent