Note: Paul Snyder of A. Brown-Olmstead Associates contacted me and clarified someÂ details of theÂ Brain Train. Those notes appear below in bold.Â
Tad Leithead remembers his days growing up in Greenwich, Conn., a place where his father could leave the house, hop on a train to New York City, and then simply hoof it a couple of blocks to work. Atlanta has the same situation with workers flocking to its city center -- except our metropolis doesn't have a train, he says.
Leithead, the Atlanta Regional Commission's chairman of the Transportation and Air Quality Committee, sat on a panel last night at the Commerce Club downtown, fielding questions and hobnobbing with local notables on the topic of the Brain Train, a commuter rail line slated to run from Athens to Atlanta -- and eventually to Macon -- and hoped to ease the trips for many residents who for so long have lived so far out and driven too damn much. The train would run on existing tracks owned by freight company CSX. The line between Atlanta and Macon would run on Norfolk/Southern right-of-way.
Gwinnett-based developer Emory Morsberger -- who throughout the evening mingled and buzzed through the crowd of public officials, media, business types and heavy hitters -- told Georgia Trend in a March article that he got the idea for a commuter rail line from arriving late to his daughter's birthday party and listening to gridlock-addled Little League parents. The idea attracted the attention of universities, cities and businesses, and is now being touted as an added boost to already booming areas and a saving grace for the congested Clifton Corridor, home to Emory University, the Centers for Disease Control and other activity centers devoid of significant transportation options except the automobile.
The panel, which included Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Ed Campbell of SYSTRA Consulting Inc., Carl Rhodenizer of the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority, Michael Robison of the Metro Chamber and former DOT Commissioner Wayne Shackelford, expressed support for the project.
The underlying question in every issue tackling government is money, and panel members were undecided on where exactly they're going to get the $383 million construction cost for the Athens-to-Atlanta line.
The federal government, according to press materials provided by the Brain Train group, is prepared to kick in 80 percent of the start-up costs. Federal money has not yet been assigned or identified -- the 80 percent is a typical amount based on a state 20 percentÂ match. The multimodal passenger terminal downtown -- a bus and train hub proposed for downtown's "gulch" near the CNN Center and Georgia Dome -- has current federal and state funding and is estimated to cost $330.8 million overall. The downtown station is expected to be a huge draw for public-private initiatives, and the crowd suggested ideas such as TADs and regional sales taxes to build the project.
So what's the holdup?
Well, it's a costly idea for a road-rich region in a cash-strapped time, and there's always the worry that commuter rail is a nifty idea that everyone's for but few people will actually use. Hence the argument by critics -- mostly from the road-building lobby or market-driven groups -- that it's a waste of cash that should go to more roads or at the very least dare not be subsidized by the tax dollars.
Studies commissioned by the Georgia Brain Train Group, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit focused on public education, and conducted byÂ Landmark Communications, however, showed public support in Gwinnett, Barrow, Oconee and Athens-Clarke counties at 75 percent or greater.Â (A. Brown-Olmstead Associates isÂ the PR firm Morsberger's group hired to gauge public interest and promote the project's image.) Former DOT commissioner Wayne Shackelford said the commuter rail idea was a necessity and the most important transportation project Georgia currently has on the table. The state is also at risk of losing $87 million in federal funds that are currently available for a commuter rail program. Supporters also say it would save the state millions of dollars in road construction. According to ARC estimates, the average cost per lane mile of improving interstate highways in metro Atlanta is $18.19 million. The cost of one mile of commuter rail track? $5.32 million. Also, it may woo business. Cities like Dallas and Charlotte, which often compete with Atlanta in attracting corporations, are using the region's transportation woes as a selling point for their own areas.
Development will follow the train -- Leithead said he knows it will, because in addition to working for the ARC, he's in the business himself. "If we build this, there will be development opportunities all along the line," he said. "[Developers] are ready, willing and able to give people places to go when they get off the train." Atlanta has historically developed around its transportation projects, he added, citing Cumberland's growth at the intersection of Interstates 75 and 285.
When asked if the project needed a leader on the political front, Shackelford said it was already there in the form of collective public support, and Cagle said the political will was in the Legislature as well. But when Greg Fulton, editor of Atlanta Business magazine and the evening's moderator, asked the members of the panel who among them thought Georgia would see the Brain Train within the next five years, the hands went up one by one. Everyone's that it is, except Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle's.
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