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Facts paint rosy picture for local commuter rail

It is an unfortunate truism that it is easier to criticize than to effect positive change. Even more unfortunate and disruptive to progress is to criticize using assertions of fact that are unfounded and completely erroneous.

Jimmy Orr's perspective from the Sunday, May 18, edition of the Gwinnett Daily Post titled "Doing nothing is better than wasting billions of tax dollars" is an example of such unfounded and erroneous criticism. For brevity's sake I will address three of Mr. Orr's claims from the commentary that are completely false. At the risk of providing more credibility to Mr. Orr's argument than is due, I feel compelled to respond.

"In his piece, Morsberger said similar commuter systems recommend fare pricing to cover more than 50 percent of operating expenses ... (the norm is closer to 35 percent)."

Georgia Rail Consultants' 2003 Environmental Assessment for the Athens-Atlanta commuter rail corridor projects fare box revenue from the service would more than double Mr. Orr's suggested "norm," covering 72 percent of its operating costs by year 2025 (page 2-46).

"(Morsberger) asserts commuter rail is 25 times safer than driving a car. Any statistic showing auto versus commuter rail would be grossly inflated. There is absolutely no fair comparison. This tactic is used by proponents, even though they know the numbers don't collaborate their claims."

Mr. Orr's claims that these statistics are grossly inflated and that the numbers don't 'collaborate' (I believe he meant 'corroborate') is borderline slander. A letter from William W. Millar, president, American Public Transportation Association to Alan Lowenthal, chair, Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, Calif., is the source for my assertion of safety. In the letter, Mr. Millar writes, "A July 1, 2005 interim analysis of push-pull operations performed by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the federal regulator of railroad safety, showed that a person riding a push-pull commuter rail train is 25 times safer than a person riding in an automobile."

Additionally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in 1997 motor vehicles accounted for .93 fatalities per 100 million passenger miles traveled compared to .05 for commuter rail. In 2004, there were 42,636 highway traffic fatalities on U.S. highways, 1,634 of which occurred in Georgia.

"Morsberger implies commuter rail would contribute to better air quality. Commuter trains will likely be operated with diesel engines spewing far more carbon emissions per passenger mile than any trivial number of cars taken off the road."

First, Georgia Rail Consultants' 2003 Environmental Assessment for the Athens-Atlanta commuter rail corridor projects this alternative would annually divert 1.8 million automobile trips from Atlanta/Gwinnett/Athens highways by 2025, hardly a trivial number. In an era of $4 per gallon fuel (and climbing), we believe ridership demand will cause the number of automobiles annually removed from the highways to far exceed the 1.8 million projection.

Additionally, regarding air quality effects with commuter rail service, the same Environmental Assessment states, "on an annual basis for the corridor in the 2025 Horizon there would be: 42,500,000 fewer vehicle miles of travel (VMT). The reductions in VMT lead to 16.2 tons of hydrocarbons reduced, 5.8 million tons of nitrous oxides increased, 0.1 ton of increased particulates and a reduction of 210.4 tons of carbon monoxide. The increase in NOx is a result of a theoretical increase in travel speeds for the remaining automobiles. The particulate increase is the result of the diesel emissions. The hydrocarbons and CO are net after VMT reductions. The Environmental Protection Agency is implementing tough emission standards that will cut pollution for locomotive and marine diesel engines by up to 90 percent. Phasing in for these standards begins in 2015 for locomotive engines."

While benefits from the implementation of commuter rail in the Athens-Atlanta-Macon corridor and beyond will be many, it is my hope more readers of the Gwinnett Daily Post will seek to learn more about the facts on commuter rail and the department of transportation's plans to implement the service before making false assertions that can only serve to create confusion and further delay the implementation of productive transportation alternatives the county and state desperately need.

For three years, I've said that when gas hits $4 per gallon, people will get out of their cars and seek alternatives. I was repeatedly told that gas would never reach $4 per gallon and that no one would get out of their car or pickup to get on a train. Today, people are actively looking for transportation alternatives.

If you would like to learn more about the particulars of the environmental assessment for the Athens-Atlanta commuter rail corridor, visit www.garail.com and select No. 3 from the What's New list, "Final Athens Corridor Environmental Assessment December 2003."

Emory Morsberger is CEO of the Morsberger Group, which focuses on rehabilitation and revitalization projects.