Bringing commuter rail to Athens (paper)

The Georgia Department of Transportation approved a commuter rail system in 2004, connecting Athens to Atlanta with nine stops. Due to political reasons and cost concerns, the project never got built. 

What if we had a commuter train between Athens and Atlanta? Gone would be students’ wasted Friday afternoons sitting in Atlanta traffic en route to visit their parents. Gone would be the parking nightmare of gameday. The environmental benefits from traffic reduction would be immediately felt, too. With communities and campuses connected, those 72 miles would never feel shorter.

The so-called “Brain Train” project was approved by the Georgia Department of Transportation 17 years ago. The problem: They didn’t build it.

Linking metro Atlanta to Athens by rail would be a logistical godsend for parking scarcity on gamedays, when Athens’ population can triple or quadruple. More people could support local bars, shops and restaurants. The frequency of drunk driving would likely fall as well. We have a fight song about our team coming “down the track.” Why can’t we transport fans with one?

2020 saw an early dip in car commutes as a result of the pandemic, but as of late March 2021, the amount of daily passenger vehicle trips has resumed to normal levels. Fossil fuels burned by cars will never continuously decrease until we invest in alternative transit.

GDOT approved a commuter rail system in 2004, connecting Athens to Atlanta with nine stops. The proposal was nicknamed the “Brain Train” for linking many of Atlanta’s universities as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to the University of Georgia. Travel by passenger rail would connect smaller communities to education and business resources throughout northeast Georgia.

Rail projects often run into environment issues when laying new lines. But according to the Federal Transit Administration’s Environmental Assessment in 2004, building a commuter rail from Atlanta to Athens with 11 stations would have “no significant impacts on the environment.”

Though the project fizzled, surveyors found building the commuter rail along the existing freight line in 2007-2008 would have saved Georgia nearly a million gallons of burned fossil fuels per year by 2025.

The plan also avoided adversely impacting low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, a step in the right direction in Georgia’s fight for environmental justice.

There has been strong opposition to MARTA’s expansion into the metro Atlanta suburbs. Racist and classist prejudices of voters in counties such as Cobb and Gwinnett are reflected in their history of repeatedly voting down MARTA expansions. Car and airline corporations lobby Georgia politicians to avoid other transit investments.

The question of cost also remains open. Most passenger railways, especially the longest hauls, never profit. Acela (America’s only high-speed system) is Amtrak’s sole moneymaker. Entrepreneur Wes Edens’ Brightline, a high-speed, eco-friendly passenger rail, launched in 2018 in Florida. He has pricey plans for Miami-Orlando and Las Vegas-Southern California lines.

Awaiting approval for government-backed bonds as well as waiting out COVID-19, Brightline is currently suspended. Yet Edens’ vision to connect frequently-visited cities via a safer, faster and greener mode of travel can be applied to Atlanta and Athens. At a fraction of the distance as Edens’ plans, the cost won’t reach Brightline’s $9 billion price tag.

If proponents of commuter rail can make a case to the people most directly affected by such a plan — taxpaying metro Atlanta residents who frequent Athens for school and Atlanta for work — then maybe the trains can get back on track.