By Jason A. Smith
Georgians for the Brain Train sponsored a summit on the proposed commuter rail line, that would eventually run from Athens to Macon, at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton.
The Thursday event drew more than 300 government officials, including mayors, commissioners and city councilmen from each of the areas which would be affected by the rail line.
Henry County District II Commissioner, Elizabeth "B.J." Mathis, attended the summit even though she has spoken out against bringing a commuter line to Henry. Mathis said the rail "is not going to make any difference at all," regarding congestion levels on Interstate 75 in Henry County.
"The last report I saw estimated that the ridership [on the commuter rail] for Henry County, at its peak, is only going to be about 300 people a day," she said. "You wouldn't even notice that."
Mathis also expressed concerns as to the subject of funding for the rail effort. She said taxpayer money in Henry could be put to better use, than by paying for the transit project. "We're in an economy where we have to maximize every single tax dollar we have, to provide the most services we can for every city. This is ... not what the citizens want."
Michael Thomas, director of planning, data and intermodal development with the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), was one of the featured speakers at the summit. He said state officials have been working on several angles of the proposed rail project, ever since GDOT passed a motion in April to move forward with an initial line from Atlanta to Griffin.
Thomas added that the department is currently attempting to find ways to implement a workable plan, retain consultants for the rail project, and identify a company to oversee the line. "Norfolk Southern Railways has the right of first refusal to operate the train," he said. "Barring that, there are several different companies which could do that. Amtrak is one of them."
One of the sponsors for the summit was the Henry County Chamber of Commerce. Chamber President Kay Pippin said she is "very excited" about the idea of bringing a commuter rail to Henry, adding that the development could be "the biggest infrastructure change since the 1960s," when Interstate 75 was routed through the county.
"I-75 was scheduled to go through Griffin, but the city didn't want it," said Pippin. "It came through Henry, and the rest is history, in terms of the economic prosperity for the two communities. All you have to do is look up and down the I-75 corridor, to see where business, activity and commerce takes place."
The chamber president acknowledged that the commuter rail would not be a "complete fix" to traffic woes in the area, but said it would help ease congestion and act as a catalyst for economic development. "I understand that it is a divisive issue, and that there are some people who have not decided that this is something they want for their community," said Pippin. "But, I think as they learn more, they're going to be very excited about this opportunity."
Emory Morsberger is the chairman of Georgians for the Brain Train, which sponsored the summit, and founder of the Morsberger Group re-development firm. He noted that the "Brain Train" received its name as a result of a number of colleges and universities located along Interstate 75, where the rail system would operate.
Morsberger said the Brain Train would provide a way for students to attend college more easily, while allowing professors to go from one school to another to teach. He added that residents from other areas in metro Atlanta, have indicated support for bringing a rail system to the area.
"We polled residents in Gwinnett County, and the results shocked us," he said. "Roughly 74 percent of the people [there] three years ago, said they wanted commuter rail. They can't understand why we, in the railroad capital of the South, don't have railroads to get people from where they live, to where they work, and back again."
Morsberger said similar results in other Georgia counties indicate a "strong desire" for transportation authorities to provide alternative means of transportation.