Recent discussion of a high-speed commuter rail link between Atlanta and Charlotte, and the possibility that the route might come through Athens, brings to mind the potential for a rail link between Athens and Atlanta.
Interestingly, any such link might owe its implementation and its ultimate success to the University of Georgia student body.
UGA is a commuter campus. Almost 13,000 of the university’s students, nearly half the student body, live in eight metropolitan Atlanta counties. They routinely head back home for the weekend to see friends and significant others, get clothes washed, have some home cooking and replenish groceries. If you’ve traveled Georgia Highway 316, a major four-lane link between Athens and Atlanta, on a Friday afternoon, you’ve seen the evidence of the weekly student exodus.
A commuter train would permit numerous students to attend UGA and continue to live at home, which would result in considerable cost savings to their families. As education costs continue to escalate, this alternative certainly could begin to gain more acceptance.
In Colorado, a toll road was built between Denver and Boulder, home of the University of Colorado. The distance was roughly the same as between Athens and Atlanta. The road was a huge success because of the student traffic between the two cities. Safety, ease of access and reduced travel time were the keys to the road’s success.
But back to an Athens-Atlanta commuter rail line, an unintended consequence might be that Athens could become a destination for individuals seeking a vibrant bar scene and party atmosphere. This would put undue pressure on the Athens-Clarke County government’s public safety departments, in terms of the challenges of handling throngs of revelers. That increased need for additional public safety personnel would have to be recognized, and budget increases would be likely.
In summary, a rail line between Atlanta and Athens would have both positive and negative consequences. Whatever those consequences might turn out to be, UGA students would play a key role in the ultimate success of that new transportation alternative.
• Doug Bachtel is a professor of housing and consumer economics at the University of Georgia.