ATLANTA - The proposed Georgia Brain Train received a key endorsement Wednesday from a State Transportation Board committee.
But with that support came a tradeoff: For the first time, transportation policy makers are talking about building the planned commuter rail line initially only from Atlanta to Tucker.
The rest of the Brain Train, through Gwinnett and Barrow counties and on to Athens, would come later.
The board's Intermodal Committee voted unanimously to move ahead with two proposed commuter lines, the Brain Train and a route linking Atlanta with Macon.
Although both projects ultimately depend on the willingness of Gov. Sonny Perdue and the General Assembly to come up with the money, the unanimous vote was the most definitive yet in favor of building the Brain Train.
"We need to take a positive first step," said Larry Walker, the committee's chairman, who rounded up the votes for the resolution. "If we don't, people are going to say, 'It's the same old DOT. ... Building roads is all they know.' I think that sends the wrong message."
The resolution supports building both commuter rail projects in stages.
The Athens line - dubbed the Brain Train - initially would run from the Atlantic Station area of midtown Atlanta through the Emory University campus to Tucker in northern DeKalb County.
The Macon line first would connect downtown Atlanta with Lovejoy in southern Clayton County.
"We ought to start by doing something on a limited basis," Walker said. "If it's financially unsuccessful, it won't bankrupt the state."
Transportation planners have made it clear for several years that the state would build the first portion of the Macon line only as far south as Lovejoy.
But Emory Morsberger, a Gwinnett developer and chairman of the Georgia Brain Train Group, said Wednesday's resolution was the first word from the DOT that the first segment of the Athens line would extend only to Tucker.
"That's not what we were thinking," he said. "Gwinnett is a halfway point between Atlanta and Athens."
But Morsberger added that the strong support the committee showed for commuter rail overshadows any concerns that the Brain Train may not extend initially into Gwinnett County.
"We're ecstatic that this is moving forward," he said.
The future of commuter rail in Georgia has long hung in the balance.
The State Transportation Board has been divided over whether to pursue rail as a way to help reduce traffic gridlock on Atlanta-area highways.
Opponents inside and outside of the board have argued that metro Atlanta is ill suited for rail because of its sprawling development pattern and multiple job centers.
In fact, the Lovejoy project barely survived in September 2005 when board members voted 7-5 to move ahead with the rail line.
A key factor in that vote was that the Clayton County Commission had agreed to cover the system's operating shortfalls after its first three years in service, projected to cost at least $4 million a year.
But earlier this year, a newly elected commission rescinded that vote, renewing uncertainty over the project's financial viability.
Former Clayton Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer, chairman of the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority, said he has been working to convince his successors to recommit to the Lovejoy project.
He said Wednesday's vote should make his job easier.
"More optimism is stating it lightly," he said.
The DOT already has a federal commitment for more than $90 million of the $107 million needed to build the Lovejoy line.
The Brain Train doesn't have any money lined up. However, its ridership projections greatly exceed Lovejoy's.
"The numbers work great for the Athens line," Morsberger said. "It is a great investment for the Georgia DOT."