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Commuter rail line still a question

ATLANTA - A committee of the State Transportation Board on Wednesday put off deciding whether Georgia should take the plunge into commuter rail.

The board's Intermodal Committee voted to hold off acting on a planned rail line linking Atlanta with suburban Lovejoy until new cost and ridership projections are available.

While committee members specifically want an accurate fix on the size of an anticipated operational shortfall, Wednesday's result also reflects a broader uncertainty over whether the state should invest in commuter rail in the Atlanta region or abandon the idea.

"It makes it easier to wait when we don't know what to do," committee Chairman Larry Walker said.

The $107 million Lovejoy line, the first leg of a proposed Atlanta-to-Macon passenger rail route, would be the first spoke in what supporters eventually hope will become a network of commuter rail lines radiating out from Atlanta in all directions.

The next project would link the Georgia capital with Athens via DeKalb, Gwinnett and Barrow counties.

Backers of what has become known as the "Brain Train" are anxious for the state to move forward with the Lovejoy line because their $380 million project would come next on the list.

They're also worried that if construction on Lovejoy doesn't begin soon, Congress might take back an $87 million federal grant providing most of its funding, setting a precedent that could jeopardize congressional willingness to underwrite the Brain Train.

Walker told committee members last month that he was anxious for the full transportation board to make a decision soon on the Lovejoy line.

But on Wednesday, he said he has been besieged since then by Georgians with a wide range of views on commuter rail, from enthusiastic supporters with new ideas on how to make the project financially viable to opponents who want the state to pull the plug on Lovejoy.

The lack of consensus Walker has been hearing reflects the same divisions that have plagued discussions of passenger rail in Georgia for years. While some argue that building commuter rail lines would be a key step toward resolving metro Atlanta's traffic woes, others say the region is too decentralized for rail to work.

"A lot of people really want this train, and a lot think it's going to be a financial boondoggle," Walker said.

Committee member Emory McClinton of Atlanta, a staunch supporter of commuter rail, objected to delaying a decision on the Lovejoy line.

"We have an agreement between the Department (of Transportation) and Norfolk Southern (the freight line that owns the track) to initiate this portion of the commuter rail program," McClinton said.

But Walker warned McClinton that he probably wouldn't like the result if board members voted on the project this month.

"If we force this to a vote now, it's going to be killed," Walker said. "We ought to slow down."

The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce is working to update the financial projections associated with the Lovejoy line, a task that is expected to be completed by next month.

Walker said those new numbers should help board members reach a decision on the project.