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The Downtown Master Plan: The Brain Train

This is the seventh installment in a series of articles by University of Georgia College of Environment and Design professor Jack Crowley. In this series, Crowley explains the downtown Athens master plan effort that his team generated to guide development downtown.

The point’s been made in earlier articles that a short, local light rail system that connects the length of the University of Georgia campus to downtown Athens includes both a step that needs to be taken first and a step that is more likely to be taken. The next step would be commuter rail or a connection to Atlanta and its international airport. The downtown segments of both of the two passenger rail systems are very short, but their impacts on Athens’ mobility in the future are very profound.  

Georgia’s cities and towns were connected by passenger rail 70 years ago. Reconnecting Athens to Atlanta is an idea that has been in various stages of planning for more than 30 years. In 1996, it was envisioned that the Olympic venues in Athens would be a train ride from Atlanta. Since then, the economy has sagged, political wills have faded and priorities (if there are any) have shifted to the Norfolk & Southern Railroad between Atlanta and Macon, which may be more easily acquired. The Athens CSX route is a major, heavily used freight corridor with little or no remaining capacity, and transportation engineers have apparently declared the Highway 316 alignment not feasible.

The matter became more complicated last year when consulting engineers began to study five potential corridors connecting Atlanta to Charlotte for high-speed passenger rail. I suspect that this effort is largely to guard against missing the train in the event that it gets built (something Birmingham, AL learned about airports).  

The most feasible route resulting from the high speed rail study could influence Athens’ commuter rail route. The routes being studied are: Atlanta to Charlotte via rail through Augusta and Columbia, the Athens CSX rail, a new rail alignment that passes north of Athens near Nicholson, a rail along I-85 and an upgrade of the Amtrak corridor that passes through Gainesville.  Ironically, all of the routes could be reached from Athens using the Norfolk & Southern alignment that is proposed for the local light rail line, with the Gainesville Amtrak alignment being the most distant.  

The Athens CSX corridor is the assumed route for the Downtown Master Plan. CSX Transportation will have to agree to cooperate with passenger rail in its right of way, and it won’t be free. Most likely, passenger rail would have to underwrite an additional set of freight tracks over which to run its trains. At-grade crossing elimination (bridges or closures) to improve corridor safety and speed for both freight and passengers would likely be in play as well.

The commuter rail corridor wouldn’t just get Athenians to Atlanta and back. A significant benefit would include connecting UGA to the rest of the world through one of the world’s greatest airports. The rail line that used to serve the now-closed auto assembly plant in Hapeville passes just east of Hartsfield-Jackson’s international terminal, and MARTA covers the domestic side. 

Perhaps the greatest potential benefit is that the rail corridor connects every research institution in the state (except Georgia Regents University in Augusta) as well as a great number of additional education institutions. UGA (with its medical partnership with Augusta) connects to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Emory University, then Georgia Tech, the Atlanta University Center, Georgia State University, UGA’s Griffin Campus and Clayton State University. The “Brain Train”—a snooty nickname—is rooted in the connection of academies. Access to education is certainly enhanced by this to include students commuting to Piedmont College and North Georgia University in Athens. 

Finally, there is the gameday factor—football fans could ride in on the train. Patrons could shuttle to Sanford Stadium on the local light rail, and the separated nature of rail travel trumps traffic congestion. In fact, transporting fans from parking lots on South Milledge Avenue or downtown on rail, where there are only five at-grade crossings, is made even more efficient by the fact that trains can close the crossings as they approach. 

Efficiently transporting more fans from farther away may mean the stadium might grow to outpace larger ones in Knoxville, TN and Tuscaloosa, AL. You can’t justify a transportation investment based solely on six–eight very important days of the year, but it’s one to add to the good reasons that already exist—and it brings a 900-pound gorilla to the wrestling match!