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'Brain train' group brings clout for commuter rail

For years, the driving force behind getting Georgia commuters out of their cars and into trains was provided by environmental advocates.

Groups like the Sierra Club were among the biggest backers of MARTA and efforts to launch commuter rail lines linking Atlanta with its northeastern and southern suburbs.

Their argument was that reducing the number of cars idling on congested interstate highways and feeder roads during rush hours would cut down on vehicle exhaust, making for healthier air.

Neither environmentalists nor their reasoning has carried the day with a majority of the state's political leaders.

If it had, $106 million in state and federal money already earmarked for a proposed commuter rail line between Atlanta and Lovejoy in Clayton County wouldn't be sitting around unused, and backers of a second line from Atlanta to Athens would have something more than $10 million to work with, funds the state has set aside for preliminary studies.

But the dynamics may be changing with the advent last spring of the Georgia Brain Train Group, a coalition of business, political and educational leaders who live and work along the planned Atlanta-to-Athens route and see commuter rail as an economic development tool.

It includes some heavy hitters and not a few Republicans, which comes in handy when both the Governor's Mansion and General Assembly are in the hands of the GOP.

"We now have people with the political influence and money to get the story out there," said Steve Vogel, president of the Georgia Association of Railroad Passengers. "They have connections. It makes a big difference."

For one thing, the group had the deep pockets to go out and hire a pollster to gauge public support for building the Atlanta-to-Athens line. Two surveys found a strong level of enthusiasm for the project all along the planned route, even when respondents were told that local taxpayers would have to pick up a portion of the operating costs.

"We find nearly zero opposition to it," said Mark Rountree, president of Landmark Communications of Duluth, the firm that conducted the poll. "I think it gives ... grounds to assume that people are looking for alternative transportation."

That's a far cry from 30 years ago, when the idea of extending passenger rail service from Atlanta into its northern suburbs was so unpopular that voters in Gwinnett and Cobb counties rejected bids by MARTA to expand outside of Fulton and DeKalb counties.

Of course, traffic wasn't nearly as bad then as it is today.

"That town was not this town," Rountree said.

Rep. John Heard, R-Lawrenceville, said he's noticed a change in public opinion about commuter rail just in the past year or so.

He said people who used to be turned off by the thought of paying a fare to ride a train now realize that if the commuter line isn't built, the state will probably be forced to upgrade Ga. Highway 316 and turn it into a toll road. Either way, the traveler will pay.

"We know no commuter rail system will pay for itself," Heard said. "But when you look at the cost of building more lanes on 316 and (Interstate) 85 ... rail gets to be a no-brainer."

However, the brain train group faces a tough audience in Perdue and the Legislature. Both have shown a tendency to favor road building over mass transit.

Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he's worried that putting a lot of state money into commuter rail would mean less for highway improvements that state transportation officials know are needed and that will be used.

"As much as we're for trying to relieve congestion, we don't know that (commuter rail) will accomplish that," he said. "Georgians need to know that their tax dollars are being properly spent."

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com. Have any thoughts about this column? Share them with us at letters@gwinnettdailypost.com. Letters should be no more than 200 words and are subject to approval by the publisher. Letters may be edited for style and space requirements. Please sign your name and provide an address and a daytime telephone number. Address letters for publication to: Letters to the Editor, Gwinnett Daily Post, P.O. Box 603, Lawrenceville, GA 30046-0603. The fax number is 770-339-8081.