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Committees hear rail proposals

ATLANTA - Commuter rail advocates, touting a technology often derided as old-fashioned, got stuck behind the dazzling potential of a magnetic-levitation rail project Thursday in back-to-back presentations to state lawmakers.

But when it came their turn, representatives of Georgians for the Brain Train told the legislature's transportation committees that commuter rail lines linking Atlanta with Athens and Lovejoy could be in place much sooner than a mag-lev train running between the Georgia capital and Chattanooga, Tenn., at a lower cost.

"This is proven, cost-effective and can be up and running in five years," said Brain Train Chairman Emory Morsberger, a Gwinnett County developer.

"We're struggling now. We can't wait 25 years for mag-lev."

The committees invited proponents of mag-lev and commuter rail to outline their plans as the General Assembly considers whether and how to beef up funding for needed road and transit improvements across Georgia.

The Senate already has passed legislation that would let one or more counties ask voters in their communities to add an additional penny to the sales tax for transportation projects.

A competing proposal to put a 1-cent sales tax for transportation before voters statewide cleared the House Transportation Committee last week but hasn't reached the floor.

Lawmakers appeared impressed with Thursday's presentation by Chris Brady of Transrapid International, which wants to run a high-speed mag-lev line between Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Chattanooga.

The aerodynamic train, traveling on a cushion of air, could make the trip in 47 minutes, traveling almost 300 miles an hour.

After hearing about mag-lev technology, the committees' members were more skeptical about the planned commuter-rail projects.

Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, bristled when told that when the Lovejoy line eventually is extended south to Macon, it will take more than two hours to travel just more than 100 miles from that city's downtown to Atlanta.

"It's a very difficult sell to hear 'Brain Train' on a diesel track," said Sen. Valencia Seay, D-Riverdale.

Sen. John Douglas, R-Covington, complained that the Lovejoy line won't go to Hartsfield-Jackson, a very popular stop for passengers who ride the MARTA rail system.

But Ed Campbell of Georgia Rail Consultants, which helped develop the two commuter rail projects, said it's unrealistic to compare a rail line geared strictly toward commuters, which travels long distances with few stations, to MARTA, a shorter line that runs at all times of day and makes frequent stops.

"There are going to be some people that this doesn't work for," added Andy Welch, transportation chairman for the Henry County Chamber of Commerce. "But it would provide people a commuting alternative that they don't have now."

Morsberger said the Atlanta-to-Athens line compares favorably with driving that route. He said traveling the full distance between the two cities via Gwinnett and Barrow counties on the train will take an hour and 20 minutes, the same time it takes to drive it if there's no traffic.

He pointed out that rail commuters also would be able to read, work or take a nap, rather than gripping the steering wheel during a traffic jam.

"You're using that commute time productively," he said.

Morsberger asked lawmakers to find a way to help fund the costs of building the two planned commuter rail lines and send a letter urging the state Department of Transportation to move ahead with the projects.

The Senate version of the transportation funding legislation appears to hold more potential for funding of rail. Unlike the House measure, it would require 10 percent of the money raised by a transportation sales tax to go toward transit improvements.