Athens station waiting on other 'brain train' terminals to be built

ATHENS - The tile floor is gleaming, and four rows of oak benches are polished to a sparkling shine.

There's a reason the train terminal at the new Multi-Modal Transportation Center in downtown Athens is in mint condition.

It stands empty, waiting to become the eastern terminus of a proposed commuter rail line that would link the home of the University of Georgia with Atlanta via Gwinnett and Barrow counties.

"I think it's the best thing that could ever happen,'' said Pat Barnett-Hale, superintendent of operations for the Athens Transit System, which shares the bus terminal in the other half of the month-old building with the UGA bus system.

Barnett-Hale is an experienced train rider, having spent years taking MARTA's Doraville line to avoid mind-numbing traffic congestion on Interstate 85 between her former home in Gwinnett County and former job in Atlanta.

"It saved gas. It saved wear and tear on my car,'' she said. "It saved me wear and tear.''

But Barnett-Hale and others who live along the 72-mile Atlanta-to-Athens route are going to have to wait a long time for passenger rail service, if the line is ever built.

The other commuter rail line in the planning stages in Georgia, connecting Atlanta with Lovejoy in the city's southern suburbs, is much closer to becoming reality. Between them, the state and federal governments have set aside $106 million to build that project, and the Clayton County Commission has agreed to cover any operational shortfalls that occur after the line's first three years.

On the other hand, Congress hasn't come up with any of the nearly $400 million estimated price tag for the Athens line, and the General Assembly thus far has only provided about $10 million for preliminary studies. Also, Georgia lawmakers quietly inserted language into this year's budget requiring legislative approval before any additional funds are committed to commuter rail.

"I'm not even aware of a proposal,'' said Derick Corbett, spokesman for U.S. Rep. John Linder, R-Duluth.

Key component

Such an iffy financial outlook might make it seem that Athens officials are taking a big gamble to build a transit center large enough to accommodate rail service.

But E.H. Culpepper of Athens, a member of the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority and a longtime booster of the proposed commuter line, said community leaders see the passenger rail as a key component of a downtown redevelopment effort that's been going on for years.

The $11 million transit center is located just behind the Classic Center, a $20 million convention/entertainment venue that opened in 1995. A pedestrian bridge connects the center with a new five-story parking deck, built for

$12 million.

All three projects were approved by Athens-Clarke County voters in Special Local Option Sales Tax referenda dating back to the late 1980s.

A condominium-retail building is under construction nearby, and two others are planned, Culpepper said.

"It's part of an overall larger vision of this area as a hub for people to come into,'' he said.

Culpepper said UGA also would be a big factor in the rail line. Indeed, an alliance of business leaders that has formed to push for the project calls itself the Georgia Brain Train Group because the proposed route would link UGA with several major colleges and universities, including Georgia Tech, Emory University and the new Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville.

Culpepper envisions students taking advantage of a level of academic connectivity that isn't possible today.

"We could develop a cooperative system," he said. "The courses they don't provide, (UGA) could.''

High expectations

Consultants are projecting a daily ridership of 8,000 passengers for the commuter line, with about 80 percent boarding the train at stations in Gwinnett or DeKalb counties to travel to such job centers as Emory, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Atlantic Station in Midtown Atlanta.

With monthly discount passes, passengers boarding at stops in Gwinnett County would pay about $3 to $5 for a one-way trip. From Athens, the discounted one-way fare would be $8.30.

Polls conducted on behalf of the Brain Train Group have found strong public support for the project all along the planned route.

"Every time you get on 85 or (U.S. Highway) 78 and sit for an hour, you realize this is something that's needed,'' said Emory Morsberger, a Gwinnett developer who is spearheading the brain train.

The group has lined up a slew of supporters for the project among local and state politicians, including lawmakers representing districts along the line. About 30 showed up at a candidates forum in June sponsored by Morsberger's group.

But they've yet to convince top-level political leaders who control the state's purse strings.

It was Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who put the provision in the budget requiring prior legislative approval of future commuter rail funding.

The brain train group intensely lobbied Gov. Sonny Perdue last spring to veto the provision, but the governor declined to act.

Skeptical leaders

Neither Harbin nor Perdue are buying the consultants' projections.

"The governor wants to see some hard data on ridership before making a commitment,'' said Heather Hedrick, Perdue's spokeswoman. "He would be looking for a consensus not only from consultants who are advocating for the line, but from independent sources.''

Culpepper said such reasoning smacks of a double standard because government officials typically apply it to mass transit projects but not to proposed highways.

"On the road side, they rely on consultants telling them where the demand is and what needs to be done,'' he said.

Morsberger said his group will mount a major education campaign during this winter's legislative session to continue building support for the project, including a "Brain Train Day'' at the Capitol.

He said he understands the reservations of the governor and legislative leaders like Harbin.

"This is a big project,'' Morsberger said. "People want to look at it, see what it's going to cost and how it's going to work. If you were going to spend $400 million, you would, too.''