Driving The Brain Train

Imagine yourself an observer using Google Earth to peer at the northeast quadrant of Metro Atlanta. Focus on that blur of stalled taillights extending for miles and miles north along I-85, past Tucker and Norcross and east 35 miles along Highway 316 through Lilburn and Lawrenceville, into Winder and Athens. The endless gridlock suggests green-lighting the “Brain Train,” a commuter rail line that would link downtown Atlanta to Athens while relieving traffic in its congested suburbs should be a no-brainer.

“Metro Atlanta is strangling on its own success,” says developer Emory Morsberger, a driving force behind the project. “Commuter rail is the most cost-effective, safe and environmentally friendly way to get people from Point A to B, but it’s up to the governor and the state legislature to determine when it happens.” The endlessly upbeat Morsberger won’t allow himself to say, “… if it happens.”

The Brain Train would remove more than 5,000 cars from jammed highways and feeder roads during peak travel times – the equivalent of adding another lane to I-85. It’s being promoted at the precise moment that congestion, travel time, pollution and road rage are becoming dramatically worse.

Run for the most part on existing rails, the line could potentially save billions of dollars in long-term road construction costs. “Even if you’re a person who never rides a train,” Morsberger adds, “the 10 percent of us who do will benefit everyone.”

In Gwinnett, beleaguered residents rank traffic and overdevelopment as their most critical concerns, impacting both quality of life and viability, i.e., the county’s ability to continue to attract jobs and new investment. The rest of overcrowded, traffic-snarled Metro Atlanta is limping along not far behind. “The DOT cannot build their way out of this mess,” says realtor Richard Bowers, a Brain Train supporter. “And they certainly can’t turn [all of] North Georgia into an Atlanta suburb.”

According to a 2006 bipartisan poll, more than 75 percent of the residents in Gwinnett, Barrow, Oconee and Clarke counties support the rail line. In southeast metro, another commuter rail line linking downtown to Lovejoy (and eventually Macon) is just two years from completion – 80 percent of its start-up cost subsidized by Washington. However, in early January the Clayton County Commission rescinded a 2005 resolution in which the county pledged to cover the transit line’s operating deficit – estimated at $4 million a year – for 50 years, leaving the project’s future somewhat up in the air.

Truly, both projects have languished like unwanted stepchildren for years, marginalized, supporters say, by virulently pro-road legislators at the statehouse and pussyfooters at Georgia’s DOT who historically give highway and road construction top priority.

Proponents are peddling a “back to the future” scenario, recalling Atlanta’s historic connection to railroading: The service will stimulate a vibrant core city, promote orderly, mixed-use development in outlying areas, shuttle commuters quickly and comfortably to and from jobs and activities. Opponents declare trains a boondoggle, siphoning off scarce taxpayer resources to entice an unwilling populace from their cars. “Rail systems should not be perceived as radical or untested,” adds Richard Bowers. “With 4 of the 5 million people in Metro Atlanta outside 285, they’re an efficient alternative to roads and highways.”

And there, things have stood for 20 years.

Enter Morsberger, a former Republican state representative and longsuffering I-85 commuter, triggered into action, he says, by arriving late for his daughter Jill’s birthday party (he has seven daughters) and coaching too many Little League games with gridlocked parents in absentia. He dusted off a 20-year-old GDOT plan to run a commuter rail line through the northeast suburbs, kicked in seed money and retained A. Brown-Olmstead Associates, a politically savvy communications firm, to re-brand the project. In 2006, Morsberger roused volunteers to form the nonprofit Georgia Brain Train Group and later the Brain Train Political Action Committee, determined to educate, lobby and arm-twist Sonny Perdue, GDOT Commissioner Harold Linnenkohl, on the fence legislators and anyone else he can buttonhole into supporting the scheme.

Things have moved about as smoothly as traffic on Jimmy Carter Boulevard. “Many times when I’m dealing with state legislators,” Morsberger says, “they’ll look at me like I’m introducing some new kind of rocket science. We’re talking about transportation that existed for most of the last century in Atlanta, the railroad capital of the South. There are already train stations in a couple of the cities along the routes.”

Another aggressively “Can Do” Gwinnett dealmaker, Morsberger is credited with transforming Lawrenceville’s rundown town square into a bustling shopping and dining “destination.” He’s trying to work the same magic intown with the former Sears/City Hall East building on Atlanta’s Ponce de Leon Avenue.

Morsberger’s “Progress Com-ing” campaign helped create a huge redevelopment buzz in forlorn Lawrenceville – so it’s no stretch to brand a languishing, suburban commuter project a “Brain Train” linking Emory University, the CDC, Georgia State, Georgia Tech, Atlanta University Center, and a handful other colleges with the University of Georgia. In developer’s terms, he envisions the 8,000 Emory University employees and CDC types living in the northeast suburbs as the “anchor tenants” for the project.

The Route, The Plan

The commuter line would operate along CSX tracks and use that carrier’s right-of-way to create a 72-mile rail link between Athens and downtown Atlanta. The railroad already operates two successful commuter rail lines in northern Virginia and south Florida. Sixteen U.S. cities currently operate commuter rail service. Of the 12 proposed Brain Train stops (Atlanta’s planned downtown Multimodal Passenger Terminal, Atlantic Station, Emory University, Tucker, Northlake, Lilburn, Reagan Parkway, Lawrenceville, Cedars Road, Winder, Bogart, Athens), four are in Gwinnett County. If things go smoothly, Morsberger says, the trains could be operating within five years, a time frame that seems very optimistic unless he’s got Mussolini’s ghost (the dictator is renowned for making Italy’s intransigent trains operate on schedule) tucked away in Winder.

Federal transportation dollars would underwrite approximately 80 percent of the project’s capital expenditures (laying track, acquiring locomotives and passenger coaches, improving road crossings, etc.) with Georgia contributing the balance. In addition to counties and municipalities along the route, the state also would be responsible for day-to-day operating expenses, conservatively estimated at some $5 million annually.

Phase One encompasses $311 million in improvements along 36 miles of track between Atlanta and Dacula (paralleling Highway 316 north of Lawrenceville), a number that has become less realistic as time has passed. Phase II, budgeted at $72 million, covers improvements to existing CSX tracks from Lawrenceville to Athens. Projections are for some 8,000 daily passengers riding the train by 2015, 80 percent of them boarding in Gwinnett or DeKalb counties.

The project’s overwhelming support among Gwinnett residents suggests necessity may the mother of reinvention. Gwinnettians have twice voted to keep MARTA from extending its reach into the county. Brain Trainers are careful to differentiate their service (“intended to move professionals from their home or their business or from their business to business”) from MARTA’s more mundane “mass transit” mission. Morsberger has described the prospective ridership as “… not country folks with gun racks on the back of their pickups. They are $150,000-a-year professors and scientists who’d rather be relaxing on a train with a notebook computer than fighting traffic on I-85.”

Approximately $6 million in state and federal monies has been disbursed to underwrite environmental impact and other studies. The Atlanta Regional Commission has signed off, and CSX is putting the final touches on a study to determine the extent and cost of adding capacity. “They [CSX] are willing partners,” Morsberger says, “and they’re not going to do anything stupid, like lose money or take risks.”

Former GDOT commissioners Wayne Shackelford and Tom Moreland are on board. Morsberger believes Sen. Johnny Isakson and Fourth District Rep. Hank Johnson will lend Congressional support; but beyond a contingent of local supporters – State Reps. John Heard (R-Lawrenceville), Brian Thomas (D-Lilburn), Clay Cox (R-Lilburn), Hugh Floyd (D-Norcross), Melvin Everson (R-Snellville) among them, a dearth of support at the statehouse is threatening to again shunt the project aside.

As of January, Sonny Perdue had not weighed in. “The governor is happy with the status quo, and therefore the GDOT is dragging its feet,” complains one Brain Train supporter requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. If anything, the projects are encountering virulent opposition, in particular from so-called “road warrior” Rep. Steve Davis (R-McDonough) and a phalanx of road-building lobbyists. GDOT spokespeople politely couch the discord as “some difference of opinion … as to the efficacy of this type of commuter rail.”

Eleventh Hour Coup

That was made clear last spring in an eleventh hour coup that derailed the Brain Train’s stalking horse, the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority’s Atlanta-Lovejoy line. That 26-mile project had also endured a decade of hurdles, including Perdue’s 2003 gutting of a state bond package (passed under Roy Barnes’ administration) that included money to fund commuter rail, and a public denunciation by State Transportation Board Chairman Mike Evans. (“What do we need to do to kill it?”)

Last April, Rep. Ben Harbin (R-Evans) inserted some curious language in an unrelated budget bill, in effect, mandating the GDOT get permission from the legislature before funding any future commuter rail projects. Despite an uproar, and a raft of Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorials, Sonny Perdue let Harbin’s language stand, effectively leaving $87 million in federal money earmarked for the project “on the table.”

Opponents insist the Lovejoy project represents an inefficient use of taxpayers’ money, over-hyped in terms of prospective ridership and dramatically under-budgeted despite a proposed $10.60 round-trip fare (twice the cost of an express bus service covering the same route). It was labeled an “elitist” project in an Op-Ed published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, despite the fact the line’s four trains were scheduled to deploy refurbished locomotives pulling 40-year-old cars retrofitted to meet current safety and disability standards. Morsberger insists the Lovejoy reversal may slow the Brain Train, but won’t stop it.

Between The Old And New

In fact, more is at stake than whether a commuter train is approved, traffic eases or the project proves a boon or embarrassment to Gwinnett developers. Morsberger is a Maryland native and Wharton School grad whose 1981 marriage to Janet Tres Flanagan was noted in The New York Times. He calls himself a “maverick” and he is operating on the fault line between the old and new Georgia: a progressive, suburban Republican bumping heads with the conservative, old-boy, go-along, get-along, highway-loving, Atlanta-hating crowd.

“There are Republicans with vision and Republicans who are satisfied with the status quo and are afraid to take a step forward,” he says bluntly. “I’m just stating the truth.”

He finds it significant that Emory University, a private institution, is solidly behind the Brain Train, while the leadership at UGA, Georgia Tech and the other state schools, beholden to the state legislature for funding and favors, have been deafeningly silent.

“They’re afraid to even whimper about it,” Morsberger says. Whatever the merits, Morsberger’s group has pursued its vision conventionally, building consensus though public hearings, community fund raisers, PR and PACs, while the opposition is relying on raw power and political clout.

The real battle to watch in the legislature will be over the type of transportation funding the state eventually adopts. With federal dollars drying up, and Georgia billions of dollars short of covering its transportation wish list, legislators will decide, in essence, between a statewide sales tax (1 cent has been proposed) in lieu of the current Motor Fuels Tax supported by pro-road building advocates like Mike Kenn’s Georgians For Better Transportation, and a regional taxation scheme. (“Region” in this sense applies to intrastate governmental entities.) This approach, for example, would allow counties to band together and encourage voters to decide whether to tax themselves and for what purpose. The Brain Train is a perfect example.

“It would be very project specific,” says Betty Willis, senior associate vice president at Emory University’s Office of Governmental & Community Affairs and a member of the Brain Train Group’s executive committee. “The list of projects would be transparent and there would be oversight. This approach gives counties the flexibility to decide where they want to spend their money. In a rural area, you don’t necessarily want commuter rail, you may need roads or a regional airport.”

The Georgia Association of Railroad Passengers, a nonprofit advocacy group, has circulated a proposal for a $62 million funding package for consideration in the 2007 General Assembly, dollars that would revive the Lovejoy-Atlanta project and jump-start the Brain Train. Morsberger will be happy to shake loose $10 million to start development of a Multimodal Terminal in downtown Atlanta. More likely, he seeks a point of entry for debate and discussion and to educate opposition legislators like state Sen. John Douglas (R-Social Circle).

In 2008, Congress will be considering an Omnibus Transit Bill, but without a coordinated lobbying effort, the dream of a revitalized commuter rail network in Georgia will once again founder. “This is the first time a group of organized stakeholders has gotten together and pushed,” Morsberger says. “These train lines will happen. It’s just a question of when. If they don’t happen now, people in the future will be asking why today’s generation of political leadership dropped the ball.”

Categories: Economic Development Features, Features