House adds brain train study funds to budget

ATLANTA - After weeks of coming up empty-handed, backers of the proposed Georgia Brain Train gained support Monday from House budget writers.

The Appropriations Committee earmarked $500,000 in the midyear budget to update an existing study of the planned commuter rail line linking Atlanta and Athens via Gwinnett and Barrow counties.

The state funds would come from a larger pot of money intended to go to another commuter rail project between Atlanta and Lovejoy in southern Clayton County.

"If commuter rail is an option for the future, we need to know which one is more viable,'' said Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, the committee's chairman. "We don't know that answer.''

Several years ago, the Lovejoy line jumped ahead of the Atlanta-to-Athens route on the state's passenger-rail planning schedule. It had secured a funding commitment from Congress, and there was less freight traffic along the Lovejoy rail corridor to get in the way of passenger trains.

But with far more ridership projected for the Atlanta-to-Athens project, business and political leaders from the counties that lie along the route have been pushing for state and federal funds to get the project moving.

They formed the Georgia Brain Train Group last year to pitch the line as a way to link college campuses from the University of Georgia to Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville to Emory University and Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

After Gov. Sonny Perdue didn't include money for commuter rail in his budget request, Brain Train backers began lobbying budget writers in the House and Senate to include the project in their spending plans.

"We've got a study in place that's six years old and needs updating,'' said Rep. John Heard, R-Lawrenceville, a member of the Appropriations Committee and supporter of the Brain Train. "Once we get that done, we'll have a strong argument, pro or con, if the route through Lawrenceville is the right one to run.''

Rep. Mike Coan, R-Lawrenceville, another member of the budget panel, said he's still not convinced that the Brain Train would be a good investment for the state. But he praised the work of the project's backers in convincing the House to approve the study money.

"They've done a good job,'' he said.

In other developments related to the midyear budget, the House committee came to the rescue of Georgia's PeachCare program but took some big chunks out of Perdue's spending priorities.

Following through on a commitment the governor announced last week, the panel put $73.7 million in the spending plan to plug a looming federal shortfall in PeachCare.

But the committee also lopped $8 million off of the $13 million Perdue recommended in January for his Go Fish Georgia initiative and cut $16 million from the next installment of the governor's land conservation program. Perdue is seeking $50 million for open-space preservation.

Overall, the committee's version of the midyear budget would increase state spending for the fiscal year ending June 30 by about $730 million over the current $18.7 billion budget.

The full House is due to take up the midyear budget today.