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Decision time approaching for commuter rail

ATLANTA - After years of uncertainty, the State Transportation Board could decide soon whether to move ahead or pull the plug on commuter rail in Georgia.

The chairman of the board's Intermodal Committee said Wednesday that he wants committee members to vote within the next few weeks on whether to go forward with plans to build commuter lines linking Atlanta with Lovejoy and Athens, seek fresh projections on costs and ridership for the trains or abandon the projects.

"This is a matter of such consequence to the state that we need to do something," Walker told committee members at the end of a meeting that lasted nearly four hours. "It's not fair to continue to do nothing and sweep it under the rug."

The Georgia Department of Transportation and an alphabet soup of transit agencies have conducted numerous studies since the 1980s aimed at building a network of commuter and inter-city passenger rail lines across the state, with Atlanta as the hub.

The Lovejoy line, the first leg of a plan to extend commuter rail service from Atlanta to Macon, is closest to becoming reality because the state and federal governments already are committed to funding most of the $107 million price tag.

There is no identified source of the estimated $380 million that will be needed for the Atlanta-to-Athens line.

But the project has influential backers in the business and academic communities along its planned route in DeKalb, Gwinnett, Barrow, Oconee and Clarke counties.

It's also blessed with a catchy name - the "Brain Train" - for its ability to connect college campuses from the University of Georgia to Emory University and Georgia Tech.

While other large cities across the country have been building commuter lines, transportation decision-makers in Georgia have been torn over whether the spread-out Atlanta area is suitable for passenger rail.

That lack of consensus was reflected during Wednesday's committee meeting.

Supporters of the Lovejoy and Athens projects said commuter rail must be part of the solution to ever-worsening highway congestion in such a fast-growing region.

"We're behind 28 other cities," said Emory Morsberger, a Gwinnett developer and chairman of the Georgia Brain Train Group. "We have people moving to other cities because they can get around in those other cities better."

Morsberger and others told the committee that commuter rail is cheaper per mile than adding additional lanes of highway.

But Rep. Steve Davis, R-McDonough, one of the Legislature's chief rail opponents, said the trains won't attract enough riders to make them cost effective. He said the 1,500 passengers a day projected to ride the Lovejoy line is a minuscule percentage of commuters who travel from Atlanta's southern suburbs to their jobs in the city.

"The people pushing this are the people who are going to benefit financially, the developers along the line," Davis said.

Members of the committee also were sharply divided over what course to take.

Dana Lemon of McDonough, one of the board's strongest supporters of commuter rail, suggested working with the DOT and the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce to update the cost and ridership projections for the two projects by this fall. Some of those numbers are 6 years old.

But David Doss of Rome, a longtime opponent of commuter rail, said there are uncertainties plaguing the Lovejoy project that further studies can't fix.

He said there has been no commitment to cover a projected shortfall in the line's operational costs of up to $4 million a year since the Clayton County Commission rescinded an agreement to do so.

Also, Doss said the state would be forced to pay back the project's federal funding if the line goes belly up.

"We've been studying this since 1990," he said. "We owe the public an answer."

Walker said he would like the committee to decide the issue at its next meeting June 20 and make a recommendation to the full board, which meets the following day.