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Residents get peek at potential passenger rail service between Atlanta and Charlotte
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SUWANEE — Miles Williams is eager to find out whether Suwanee, the North Gwinnett city where generations of his family have lived, will once again be a bustling stop for passenger rail.

“We’ve got to move people and this is better than MARTA,” he said.

Williams and his wife, Karen, were among a vast throng of people who passed through Suwanee Municipal Court, setting for a Tuesday evening public meeting on plans for potential passenger rail service between Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C.

Area residents streamed through the room, talking to Georgia Department of Transportation officials and studying maps put on easels and across tables.

Officials started a 30-day comment period Tuesday on the project as the state begins an environmental assessment of the study area, a wide swath of Northeast Georgia extending from Atlanta to Charlotte and including Hall County.

Public information, or scoping, meetings also are scheduled for today in Greer, S.C., and Thursday in Charlotte.

“It’s really important for the public to get engaged at this stage because they really do help shape projects like this,” said Natalie Dale, DOT spokeswoman. “If we build a route that no one’s going to get on, we haven’t done much to serve the public or wisely use (taxpayer) money.”

The DOT and Federal Railroad Administration are studying potential routes as part of the Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor under development from Charlotte to Washington, D.C.

The extension from Charlotte would travel southeast through portions of South Carolina and into Atlanta.

The public process “will address connectivity to proposed and existing passenger rail stations, airports and other regional transportation services along the corridor,” the DOT stated in a press release last week on the effort.

The project particularly will consider connectivity to the proposed Georgia Multi Modal Passenger Terminal and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, and the proposed Charlotte Gateway Station and Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.

There are six potential corridor route alternatives, including the Norfolk Southern railroad corridor and CSX Transportation right of way, as well as Interstate 85.

One alternative stretches as far as east as Augusta, then travels northeast to Columbia, S.C., before heading north to Charlotte.

Gainesville-Hall County is part of the Norfolk Southern corridor running between Atlanta and Charlotte, according to a DOT document.

The trains would be electricity or diesel-powered, or both, depending on several factors, including which route is selected and whether the passenger rail system would share the track with current freight operations.

Officials also may decide not to pursue any alternatives, allowing Amtrak to maintain current and future plans for its Crescent rail service between New York and New Orleans and running through Atlanta, according to a DOT document on the project.

Amtrak, which began service in 1971 as result of a congressional act, has a station at 116 Industrial Blvd., Gainesville.

Michael Moore said he was at Tuesday’s meeting for business reasons — to scope out “opportunities to buy right of way for this project” — but he has also had a few thoughts as a Sugar Hill resident.

“I’m interested to see where the line goes and how long it would take for the train (to get to destinations),” he said.

Ron Thomas journeyed from Athens to learn more about the project.

“Having a (rail) connection with a major university in the state from the capitol is a no-brainer,” he said, referring to the University of Georgia.

Thomas also heads the Oconee Rivers Greenway Commission, which is “a big champion for public transit and connecting bikeways and public access.”

He moved to Athens three years ago from Chicago, where he was a regional planning director.

“I’ve done a lot of work with regional transportation,” Thomas said. “I think it’s really important, and I think the greater Atlanta region needs to move ahead with all kinds of rail transit.”

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