Brain Train advocates hope to spark support with rally

They say numbers don't lie, but the truth of that generality only goes so far.

Numbers on a page don't have the impact of a crowd of people clamoring for a cause.

That's the concept behind Brain Train Day at the Georgia Capitol this Wednesday, which will feature a rally and press conference calling on Gov. Sonny Perdue and the General Assembly to jump-start a proposed commuter rail line linking Atlanta with Athens via Gwinnett and Barrow counties.

The Georgia Brain Train Group, a coalition of community and business leaders, released several polls last year showing strong support for the line from people who live in the counties along the planned route.

But Wednesday will mark the first time the project's supporters have gathered en masse to make their feelings known.

"The governor doesn't believe we have any support to make this happen,'' said Emory Morsberger, the group's chairman and a Gwinnett County developer. "We want to show him how much support there is.''

In light of recent developments, Morsberger and company face an uphill task.

The first proposed commuter rail line in Georgia's pipeline, connecting Atlanta with suburban Lovejoy south of the city, is in trouble. Last month, a newly elected Clayton County Commission yanked its predecessor's commitment to cover the Lovejoy line's net operating costs after its first three years in service.

It amounts to less than $5 million a year, paltry compared to the $107 million overall project cost, most from a congressional appropriation secured years ago.

But it's enough to throw the project's prospects in doubt.

As if that weren't enough, a state audit released last month points out that the Lovejoy project jumped to the head of the state's commuter-rail line list mostly by happenstance. The money was available, and the state's rail planners expected smooth negotiations for the use of the tracks. As a result, the audit concluded, Lovejoy is probably not a good test of whether passenger rail service can succeed in Georgia.

The Atlanta-to-Athens line would cost a lot more, with an estimated price tag of $363.5 million. But it also could be expected to carry a lot more riders.

"If the Lovejoy line is a success, it will support growth of passenger rail in Georgia,'' according to the audit report. "However, if the Lovejoy project is not successful, passenger rail advocates may question if this project is a fair evaluation of the overall passenger rail concept.''

The audit went on to show that Georgia spent $21.1 million in state and federal funds from 1997 through last year studying a proposed network of commuter and inter-city rail lines with nothing tangible to show for it except the plans for Lovejoy.

The 18-page report provided ammunition to Rep. Steve Davis, R-McDonough, who has become a one-man would-be wrecking crew for passenger rail during the last two years.

He took to the floor of the House recently to promote his latest bills targeting Georgia's rail efforts.

"(The audit) shows the dangers and pitfalls that are around commuter rail,'' Davis told his colleagues. "They spent ($21.1) million studying this project trying to make it work when it won't work. ... We need to focus on transportation initiatives that truly relieve congestion.''

One of Davis' bills would abolish the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority, an agency that has suffered from budget cutting by Perdue to the point that it has no staff.

The other measure recycles legislation Davis pushed unsuccessfully last year. It would require voter approval to spend any local money on a commuter rail project.

Even the most ardent supporters of commuter rail agree that rail lines are regional - not local - projects and shouldn't have to be funded locally.

Morsberger is turning to the state for a first installment on the Atlanta-to-Athens line.

Disappointed that the governor didn't put any money for the project in his 2008 budget request, he has been making the round of legislative committees seeking $10 million to get the planning started.

He said the reception has been encouraging, despite release of the audit.

"The audit said we spent a lot of money on studies and haven't done anything,'' he said. "The committee I spoke to last week said, 'Let's do something. Let's stop talking and start acting.' ... I'm optimistic.''

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.

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