Commuter rail effort appears stalled again

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ATLANTA - Once again, the beleaguered effort to get commuter trains running in Georgia could be headed for a setback.

The state Transportation Board's committee that deals with train issues appears poised to delay a decision until at least the fall on whether to continue pursing the decades-long plans for a commuter rail line.

Several committee members said last week they want to see updated estimates of ridership and cost for the proposed line from Atlanta south to Lovejoy.

The holdup also could affect plans to start a commuter train route between Atlanta and Athens, which for years was expected to be the second route to be opened.

The current estimates for the Lovejoy route are six years old, as the project has dragged out despite the availability of federal start-up money.

"It's not fair to just continue to do nothing and sweep it under the rug," Larry Walker, the chairman of the board's Intermodal Committee, said about the commuter rail debate.

"It's not going away."

Mr. Walker held a special meeting Wednesday to renew talks about the commuter rail's future in the state.

At the end of the four-hour discussion, Mr. Walker presented the committee members with several directions to take in making a recommendation to the full Transportation Board next month, such as moving ahead with the Lovejoy line, pushing the Athens route instead or nixing the commuter rail effort altogether.

Most of the committee said they would prefer to get updated data on the project in the coming months before making a final decision on the program's fate.

The board, which sets policies for the state Department of Transportation, has ebbed in its support for the trains in recent years. It passed a resolution in 2005 not to buy rail cars until local governments along the route signed agreements promising to cover funding shortfalls.

In the nearly 30 other U.S. cities with commuter rail lines, none of the services failed; however, none makes enough off passenger fares to operate without taxpayer subsidies.

In the past year, business leaders and university officials have built support for the Atlanta to Athens line, dubbed the Brain Train because of its potential to connect research universities.

Emory Morsberger, the chairman of the Georgia Brain Train Group, spoke at the public hearing Wednesday and said it was long overdue to get "this thing on track, no pun intended."

Though he touted the potential benefits of the proposed route, he did not call for pushing ahead of the Lovejoy line, which has been in the works longer and has $107 million in available money to start.

"Our line to Athens is second in place. It will have a larger ridership, but they'll both be successful," Mr. Morsberger said. "We would like to link the University of Georgia in Athens to Atlanta and ultimately to Mercer (University) down in Macon."

This year, the Legislature approved transferring about $1.5 million in state funding from the Lovejoy commuter rail over to the Athens route, which is estimated to need $350 million to be completed.

Gov. Sonny Perdue still has to approve the money as part of the state budget for next year.

DOT officials said a capacity study is being done now on the Athens line to see what improvements need to be made on CSX's existing railroad, which is used to move freight cars, for it to be able to handle faster-moving passenger trains.

Craig Camuso, the regional vice president of public affairs for CSX, told the board members the company is willing to work on the studies.

CSX allows commuter cars on some of its lines in other parts of the country. But he warned the railroad's top priority is making money off its freight business. He also pointed out that many of those freight cars are moved by rail in order to keep tractor-trailers off the highways, referencing one of the leading arguments for commuter rail service, which is to ease road congestion.

As the number of people living in Georgia and Florida grows, more consumers will be buying up more goods that have to be transported into the state in some way, Mr. Camuso said.

"It's best that we move those products on rail than on the highway system," he said.

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (678) 977-4601 or vicky.eckenrode@morris.com.

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