A panel appointed by Gov. Roy Barnes to improve Georgia rail transit has affirmed it will move forward in pursuing a commuter rail line from Athens to Atlanta as traffic volumes increase between the two metropolitan areas.
Though various groups have lobbied for a commuter rail line since the mid-1980s, action taken late last month by the six-person Program Management Team will allow the group to move forward in establishing a rail system.
"It's going to happen. It's just a matter of when," said E.H. Culpepper, the vice chairman of the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority, a group that works with the Program Management Team on transit issues. "One of the real challenges we have is that we've been talking about it since '86. ... There is a certain amount of skepticism in people's minds about whether it's gonna happen."
The Program Management Team hired consulting firm Georgia Rail Consultants to conduct a feasibility study for a rail project.
In late December, the team approved the consulting firm's recommendation that the rail project should commence.
For the short term, the company recommends an express bus route be used along Georgia Highway 316 to build a customer base for the coming rail line.
The team is now negotiating with CSX Transportation about leasing some of the CSX right-of-way along Georgia Highway 8, which runs roughly parallel to Highway 316, for a commuter line. CSX currently runs a freight line along the route, and new lines must be built along the CSX property for the commuter line, Mr. Culpepper said.
The team will also soon begin the environmental impact study necessary to clear state and federal environmental guidelines for the rail project.
Mr. Barnes appointed the team early in his term to develop commuter rail systems linking Columbus, Macon, Savannah and Athens with Atlanta.
The Athens line might take a back seat to the planned Macon-to-Atlanta line.
Mr. Culpepper predicts it will be four to eight years before an Athens-to-Atlanta line is operational, but noted that the timeline is only a guess.
"We're focusing on the Macon line right now, but during the meantime we're taking all the necessary steps to make our (Athens) line a reality," Mr. Culpepper said, explaining that Macon has been vocal in requesting a commuter rail to Atlanta.
In connection with an Athens-to-Atlanta line, Georgia Rail Consultants suggest a fee of $10.10 for a one-way trip from Athens to a midtown Atlanta station.
The consultants said an Athens-Atlanta commuter rail system would cost $378 million to build and would have an annual operating cost of about $16.8 million.
From an economic standpoint, Mr. Culpepper feels a rail system would help spawn biotechnology business growth along Georgia Highway 316 because of the corridor's location between Athens and Atlanta and proximity to major research institutions such as the University of Georgia, Emory University and Georgia Tech.
He predicts the corridor has all the elements to rival the acclaimed Research Triangle in North Carolina, perhaps the technological hub of the Southeast.