Brain Train supporters nervous about funding

There's been a widely held notion in Georgia transportation circles that two planned commuter rail lines are competing against each other.

But in reality, supporters of the proposed Atlanta-to-Athens route that has come to be known as the Brain Train are trying to help advocates of a commuter line from the state capital to Clayton County see that project become reality.

"They've already got their federal matching money," said Emory Morsberger, a developer from Gwinnett County and chairman of the Georgia Brain Train Group.

Maybe not for long, though, and that's what has Morsberger and other commuter rail boosters worried.

A federal grant that would underwrite most of the $107 million Lovejoy line has been dangling for four years because state and local officials haven't put together the final pieces of funding.

The last component was supposed to have been contained in a 2005 commitment by the Clayton County Commission to cover the project's projected operational shortfall of up to $4 million a year.

But commissioners rescinded the agreement last January, arguing that local taxpayers shouldn't have to foot the bill for a regional project.

The hesitancy over the Lovejoy project mirrors a broader division among transportation policymakers in Georgia over pursuing commuter rail as a strategy for reducing the traffic congestion strangling metro Atlanta.

While other urban areas across the country are aggressively building commuter rail lines and other public transit systems, many Georgia politicians and transportation bureaucrats argue that development in the Atlanta region is too sprawling for public transit to ever play a major role.

With so much uncertainty surrounding Lovejoy, the project's supporters believe Congress is growing impatient and soon may take a use-it-or-lose-it approach to the federal grant and yank the money.

If that happens, funding prospects for the $380 million Brain Train could dry up, said Steve Vogel, president of the Georgia Association of Railroad Passengers.

Such a close link between Lovejoy and the potential fate of the Athens line will have Brain Train supporters watching closely this week when the State Transportation Board holds what could be a crucial vote on Lovejoy.

Larry Walker, chairman of the board's Intermodal Committee, told his colleagues last month that the board should stop delaying and either move ahead with the project or abandon it.

But even Lovejoy's detractors don't believe the board will pull the plug on the project this week. One of the options Walker has put on the table involves seeking updated cost and ridership projections for the Lovejoy line. Some of those figures are six years old.

"If you want to completely understand the dynamics, you need to latest facts," said Benita Dodd, vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an Atlanta-based think tank that opposes commuter rail as a solution for metro Atlanta's traffic woes. "You can't rely on dated material. It's only fair to all sides."

Dodd said there's time to do the additional legwork. She doesn't buy the warnings that Lovejoy must happen soon or Congress will give up on ever funding rail projects in Georgia.

"That's a shortsighted approach," she said. "Our congressmen are well aware of the problems we have in Georgia."

But Vogel said it won't do any good to wait for new cost and ridership projections on Lovejoy.

"We've been collecting numbers on that project for five years," he said. "That's a delaying tactic. We'll be having the same conversation a year from now."

Morsberger said he, too, is worried that not moving forward with Lovejoy could send the wrong message to Congress.

But beyond that issue, he said federal funding for passenger rail projects across the country is a finite resource.

While plans for commuter rail lines languish in Georgia, they're springing up elsewhere in the Southeast, using federal funds that otherwise might be coming here.

"Cities like Charlotte and Miami are going to get ahead of us," Morsberger said. "They're going to get the money while we're not even applying for it."

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.