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Smaller cities leapfrogging Atlanta with commuter rail

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Jennifer Barnes has cut 25 minutes off her commute time into downtown Nashville since September.

Instead of slogging through the morning rush for an hour and 15 minutes from her home in suburban Mount Juliet to the office building where she works, she hops aboard a commuter train for the 20-mile trip.

She's at her desk within 50 minutes of walking out her front door.

But Barnes said the time saved isn't the biggest benefit of riding Nashville's Music City Star, which will mark four months in operation this week. She said it's the stress relief she gets from not having to drive on the region's increasingly congested highways.

"You get this death grip and you still have it when you get to work,'' she said of the driving experience. "Now, it's a lot more relaxing. My day seems to go a lot smoother.''

Commuters in metro Atlanta don't have the same opportunity as Barnes, even though the region they call home has a population more than three times that of Nashville and, as a consequence, significantly more traffic.

According to the Texas Transportation Institute, Atlanta-area motorists were stuck in traffic more than six times as many hours during 2003 as their counterparts in Nashville, the most recent year statistics were available.

While Atlanta's inner core has been served for decades by the MARTA rail system, efforts to connect the city with its more distant suburbs via commuter rail service have languished.

As a result, smaller Southeastern cities like Nashville and Charlotte, N.C. - which now features light rail - have moved ahead of Atlanta in offering commuters an alternative to driving on clogged highways.

"They're beginning to outstrip the transportation hub of the Southeast,'' said Emory McClinton of Atlanta, a member of the State Transportation Board and longtime proponent of commuter rail.

Money uncertain

About $109 million in state and federal money was earmarked several years ago for the region's first planned commuter rail line, the lion's share of what will be needed to build a 26-mile route linking downtown Atlanta with suburban Lovejoy to the south.

But securing the rest of the funds, a relative pittance has proved elusive.

Early this month, the Clayton County Commission rescinded a 2005 commitment to cover any operational shortfalls that occur after the line's first three years, arguing that local taxpayers shouldn't have to foot the bill for a regional project.

Planning for the Lovejoy line already had been on thin ice. The project barely won a vote of confidence from the State Transportation Board in late 2005.

Then last year, the state's portion of the funding was thrown into doubt when lawmakers inserted a provision into the budget requiring the General Assembly's approval of commuter rail projects.

Legislative leaders moved quickly to clarify that they didn't intend the provision to apply to the Lovejoy line because it already is funded.

But it does apply to a second proposed commuter line that would connect Atlanta to Athens via Gwinnett County.

The $370 million project has the backing of an alliance of influential business and academic leaders along the corridor, who have labeled it the "brain train'' because it would link the University of Georgia, Georgia Gwinnett College, Emory University, Georgia Tech and Georgia State University.

It also has widespread public support, according to a poll released by the Georgia Brain Train Group last spring.

But neither Gov. Sonny Perdue nor Republican legislative leaders are convinced by consultants' projections that the line could attract 8,000 riders a day.

"I don't want the data that the commuter rail folks are paying somebody to tell me,'' said Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "I want hard numbers.''

It was Harbin who introduced the budget provision requiring legislative approval of future commuter rail funding.

"As much as we're for trying to relieve congestion, we don't know this will accomplish that,'' he said.

Research skeptical

Harbin and other skeptics of the viability of commuter rail for metro Atlanta have academic research to back up their position.

The Reason Foundation, a Libertarian think tank, released a study in November that advocated new highways, toll lanes and even tunnels - but not commuter rail - as potential solutions to traffic congestion in the Atlanta region.

Atlanta and other Southeastern cities, including Nashville and Charlotte, are too spread out for rail to succeed, said Robert Poole, the foundation's director of transportation studies.

"(Commuter rail) doesn't make sense given the land-use patterns,'' he said. "Rail could handle no more than a very small percentage of trips.''

Poole predicted that the fledgling commuter rail systems in Nashville and Charlotte won't make "a dent'' in the traffic congestion plaguing those cities.

Indeed, Nashville's Music City Star line is off to a sluggish start. Launched in mid-September, it's hauling only about 500 passengers a day along 32 miles of track between Lebanon in the city's eastern suburbs and downtown Nashville.

That's only about a third of its goal of 1,500 daily riders within its first six months of service.

"It's not where I wanted but about where I expected,'' said Bill Farquhar, commuter rail director for Nashville's Regional Transportation Authority. "It takes time for word of mouth to get out.''

But Farquhar said he's not discouraged. The California native said he has seen commuter rail take hold in other parts of the country without a history of mass transit, including San Diego and Denver.

Farquhar dismissed the notion that commuter rail can't work in areas with low population densities where job centers are widely dispersed.

"That assumes mass transit is trying to solve every problem. It's not,'' he said.

"Commuter rail is never going to replace the private auto for a large percentage of people. But what it does do is give you alternatives. ... The more choices you have, the more accessible your city will be.''

Rail needed

Accessibility has become a key selling point for backers of the Atlanta-to-Athens line. They say the portion of the planned route where commuter rail is most needed is the busy neighborhood east of Atlanta that houses Emory University and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where traffic is frequently snarled.

"There are 28,000 jobs in the Clifton corridor alone not immediately adjacent to a freeway,'' said Wayne Shackelford, a former state transportation commissioner from Gwinnett County now working as senior vice president of an architectural and engineering firm. The company, Gresham, Smith & Partners, helped develop the Nashville rail project.

"Those people desperately need commuter rail, and they desperately want it.''

Indeed, Shackelford and other supporters of commuter rail dismiss an argument frequently put forth by naysayers that people won't abandon their cars for trains, regardless of the amount of traffic they're forced to endure.

Farquhar said he has found that for many commuters, just trying the train is enough to make them regulars. The Music City Star put that theory to the test during the recent football season by running special trains on Sundays to Tennessee Titans home games.

"If you can get somebody on a train, they're much more likely to become a regular rider,'' Farquhar said.

That was certainly the case with commuter Pat McGraw, who became a regular once she started riding the Music City Star back in September.

McGraw said she's only driven once since then from her home in Mount Juliet to her job at Nashville's Vanderbilt University.

"It was horrible,'' she said from her seat on the train as suburban neighborhoods whizzed by outside the window beside her. "I've waited a long time for this.'