0

Poll shows popular support for commuter rail line

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Standing between two black cannons on the steps of the state capitol, Georgians for the Brain Train beamed over support for the idea of commuter rail.

In a poll of 414 registered voters in Clayton, Henry, Spalding, Bibb, Lamar and Monroe counties, 72 percent said they want the proposed commuter line from Athens to Atlanta to Macon.

About 74 percent of respondents said the commuter line would create jobs, and almost 60 percent said they would likely ride the rail.

"Rail has been studied thoroughly; now is the time to build it," said Emory Morsberger, chairman of Georgians for the Brain Train.

A small crowd, bundled against the Thursday morning cold, clapped their gloved hands and held up hand-made signs supporting the commuter rail. At the second annual Valentine's Day rail rally, supporters wore stickers, saying "THINK The Brain Train," and held up a long banner saying, "We [love] the Brain Train."

According to Morsberger, polling shows consistent support for the commuter rail line in communities north and south of Atlanta, and consistently in urban, suburban and ex-urban communities. A 2006 poll of hundreds of registered voters in Athens-Clarke, Oconee and Barrow counties showed 79 percent supported the proposed train.

"Even in strong Republican areas, they want commuter rail," Morsberger said. "They're tired of sitting in traffic, too."

Plans for the commuter rail line have been considered and discussed for more than a decade. Federal and state governments have committed about $120 million to the project, but it has been placed on hold indefinitely. Georgia Department of Transportation officials say they cannot move forward with commuter rail until a projected operating shortfall -- estimated by some at an annual $4 million -- is covered.

Opponents of commuter rail question its costs and effectiveness. They say it will not relieve Atlanta's clogged highways, and will cost taxpayers enormous, ongoing sums.

Georgians for the Brain Train hopes that demonstrations of strong public support will push lawmakers to find financial solutions for the operating costs. The project has not been slowed down by opposition, or perceived lack of support, though, but by budgetary constraints and priorities.

Eldrin Bell, Clayton County Commission Chairman and a regional transportation advocate, encouraged the cold crowd, telling them the financial "concept is on the table" and the rail project is "already halfway there."

Bell is pushing a rail-specific sales tax and said he'll be returning to Washington, D.C., again next month to promote the rail line.

Others stood up to the microphone and expressed their support for commuter rail and reiterated the arguments for the train line.

Andy Welch, chairman of the Henry County Chamber of Commerce, said the question of commuter rail is "not a question about rail over roads."

Commuter rail would offer commuters a choice, Welch said, and "it's time to make that choice a reality."