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All Aboard Peak-oil Express 

For God's sake, let's get the trains rolling to Lovejoy and Athens

I know this is not really news, what with all the funny stuff about the vice president shooting a guy, Arabs taking over American ports and the stumblebum Olympics. But I just wanted to point out a small tidbit of information I came across the other day.

On Dec. 16, 2005, world oil production peaked, according to petroleum geologist Kenneth M. Deffeyes.

"My career as a prophet is over," said Deffeyes, author of the book Beyond Oil. "I'm now a historian."

Deffeyes -- and many other credible scientists -- have been warning that the world would soon reach "peak oil" -- that is, we'll have slurped up half the oil on Earth. The theory is that, once past its peak, oil becomes harder and more expensive to extract, just as the world is using more and more of it.

Now that he says we're post-peak, Deffeyes sums up what it means to all of us: "By 2025, we're going back to the Stone Age."

Bold words for a former Princeton professor. But it could happen sooner. Just last week, oil futures soared 4 percent following a foiled attack on a massive oil facility in Saudi Arabia. Iraq is descending into civil war. Nigerian oil extraction is imperiled by disruptions. And what if, hypothetically, a certain superpower bombs Iran and we suddenly lose that country's 4 million barrels a day?

"In the post-peak era, we're playing a new ball game and we don't yet know the rules," Deffeyes says.

Well, in Georgia, we have our own rules. Gov. Sonny Perdue and the Yancey Bros. bulldozer cartel have a policy to help us deal with the future: Build wider and wider roads so we can use even more oil!

Worse, a powerful state legislator, Rep. John Lunsford, R-McDonough, has introduced a bill to make it more difficult for Georgia to take the only step that would make us less dependent on oil. Lunsford's bill would require a referendum on any commuter rail project in the towns and counties that may have to help fund it.

"I think it's an attempt to stop the line" that has been proposed to link Atlanta and Lovejoy, says Richard Hodges of Marietta, a retired Atlanta advertising executive. Hodges has followed Atlanta's transportation devolution for decades and in fact is the former chairman of the Georgia Motor Club.

"The whole Atlanta political establishment, with few exceptions, has very little understanding of the future beyond the next election," Hodges says. "Part of the future has got to have a place for rail. We can't solve our transportation challenges with more and more highway. We've got to have all forms of transportation and we're leaving one of them out."

The funny thing about Lunsford's demand for a rail referendum: I noticed there was no referendum on the Department of Transportation's Babylonian expansion of the Ga. 316/I-85 interchange. Lunsford did not return my call.

THE GOOD NEWS is that now there is one Georgia politician who's willing to break out of the pack and make a strong case for commuter rail.

Former legislator Greg Hecht of Jonesboro is seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor with a plank supporting commuter rail and other transportation options as a major part of his platform. Hecht has gotten way out front on the issue. Some train proponents are worried that identifying rail with one candidate could cause a political backlash -- if he loses, rail could lose momentum.

But, for Christ's sake, somebody's got to say something at some point. Here's a stone fact: Greg Hecht is the first true transportation visionary to seek statewide office in Georgia. Period.

Certainly, Hecht has good reason to be for the train. The Lovejoy line could provide an economic boost to Clayton County, which has been devastated by wave after wave of bad news: the closings of the Hapeville Ford plant, Fort Gillem and nearby Fort McPherson.

But Hecht says he supports commuter rail anywhere, especially the long-overdue line connecting Atlanta and Athens.

If Lunsford succeeds in killing the Lovejoy line, it could cost the state $87 million in federal funds now earmarked for the project and another $100 million sitting on the back burner.

But Hecht stresses the positives of commuter rail: "It will lessen the commute for citizens, bring jobs and commerce, and clean up the air. I believe commuter rail can provide a better quality of life and better jobs for Georgia."

He points out that metro Atlanta's traffic horror is chasing off companies that otherwise might want to locate in the state. "One of the biggest reasons CEOs do not want to come here is the commute time. The movement of goods through the roads is just too slow. Managers don't want to make the commute."

Hecht is running against the highly regarded former Commissioner of Human Resources Jim Martin of Atlanta in the Democratic primary. But nobody's paid a lick of attention to those two substantive candidates because of the holy war in the Republican primary between state Sen. Casey Cagle and scandal-plagued Ralph Reed.

COMMUTER RAIL could radically transform Georgia's economy. E.H. Culpepper, director of development for the Classic Center Authority in Athens, notes that the first leg of the line from Atlanta, reaching to Briscoe Field in Gwinnett County, could immediately alleviate the traffic nightmare around Emory University.

"It's gridlocked," he says. "What's the logical solution? Put a train shuttle in place that moves people from Atlantic Station to the [Centers for Disease Control], Emory, out to Tucker, Lilburn and Lawrenceville."

The Athens line could turn the downtowns of Lawrenceville, Lilburn, Winder, Bogart and Statham into "a string of pearls, with each individual city having the opportunity to create its own mixed-use development," he says. Athens-Clarke County is investing $7 million in a downtown multimodal station that will be the end of the commuter rail line.

Culpepper describes the type of person who will emerge in the new Georgia economy that commuter rail will help create. And, oddly enough, the person he singled out as an example was my 24-year-old daughter, Caroline. She's a UGA biology major who stayed in Athens following graduation to take a great job making veterinary vaccines for a major bioscience company. The plant came to town because of the world-class quality of the university's research.

By night, Caroline sings country music as part of one of the craziest music scenes on the planet.

"She's an example of what I say is the next new economy of Georgia -- where various jobs flow out of the biosciences," Culpepper says. "It's an opportunity we have along this corridor to create those high-end jobs to keep our young people here. Your daughter is also part of the 'creative class.' She likes the lifestyle around a college town, yet she has found a job in the biosciences. That's going to be the work force of the future. She fits the profile."

I told Culpepper that I used to take the train from Atlanta to Athens when I was a freshman at UGA in 1965.

"I want to ride the train to Athens again before I die," I said.

"Hold on," he said. "We're going to make it happen."

Doug Monroe is a former traffic columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For links to Deffeyes' peak-oil comments, Hecht's transportation platform, and CL's look at life without oil in Atlanta, read this column online in the News & Views section at atlanta.creativeloafing.com. For a humorous take on Caroline Monroe's music career, link to www.dougmonroe.com/do_not_seek.html.

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