Another group floats idea of expanded Georgia rail system

ATHENS, Ga. -- When Doc Eldridge was elected mayor of Athens-Clarke County in 1998, he thought the next mayor would be riding a new Athens-to-Atlanta passenger rail line.

His successor’s term is about to end, and Athenians are no closer to being able to hop a train for Atlanta than they were 12 years ago.

A new group of Georgia business and community leaders has formed to convince state officials finally to move forward with a statewide network of passenger trains.

Georgians for Passenger Rail formed “primarily to make a unified push with statewide representation, mainly in the metro (Atlanta) area, to get some legs back under the passenger rail movement,” said Eldridge, a board member and president of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce.

Georgians for Passenger Rail is a successor to the Brain Train group, a consortium founded by developer Emory Morsberger that advocated a line connecting the University of Georgia with Atlanta universities and high-density nodes of development around stops. Morsberger is also a Georgians for Passenger Rail board member.

Business leaders recognize that Atlanta’s car-based sprawl has become unsustainable, said Gordon McKenna, executive director of Georgians for Passenger Rail.

“You get pretty much diminishing returns on your investment pursuing the same strategy,” McKenna said.

Passenger rail lines connecting Georgia cities will provide transportation options, lessen reliance on foreign oil, ease tensions between urban and rural areas and share metro Atlanta’s prosperity with the rest of the state, he said.

The group will focus first on a line connecting Atlanta and Macon that already has federal funding, McKenna said. The Athens-to-Atlanta line would ideally be next after the Macon line is built, he said. Eventually, passenger rail could also connect other cities like Savannah, Columbus and Albany.

The Athens-to-Atlanta line is too short for high-speed rail, but other lines could be funded partially with money in the federal economic stimulus act earmarked for upgrading tracks for high-speed rail, McKenna said. The Obama Administration is planning a line that would run from Boston down the East Coast through Atlanta to Houston. The line would split at Raleigh, N.C., and run through Savannah to Miami, and another spur would connect Atlanta to Savannah.

Georgians for Passenger Rail is funding a study that will update years-old Brain Train estimates on costs and ridership, as well as look at logical stops, data on economic benefits and ideas for how to supplement fares to operate the trains, McKenna said.

The study will be completed in February, but building the Atlanta-to-Macon line might not happen for five to 10 years, he said.

“I think you need a long horizon,” he said.

Eldridge was a little more pessimistic.

“I don’t know if it’ll happen in my lifetime,” he said.

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