published Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Chattanooga: High-speed train funding spurs debate

Audio clip

Zach Wamp

A decade-old effort to build high-speed train service between Chattanooga and Atlanta could pick up speed with additional funding from the federal stimulus package.

The proposed train — known as a magnetic levitation train — is backed by many of Chattanooga’s top Republicans. But the $8 billion of new federal assistance for high-speed trains also is drawing fire from GOP leaders.

In the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday night, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal cited the funding that could be used for a West Coast maglev route as an example of how the stimulus package is “larded with wasteful spending.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is backing a maglev train route from Anaheim, Calif., to Las Vegas using the futuristic technology that allows trains to carry passengers at speeds up to 310 miles per hour on a cushion of air instead of wheels. But other routes using the same technology also are proposed elsewhere in California, Florida, the Northeast, Midwest and the South and could compete for future funding, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

The Chattanooga-Atlanta high-speed train route has been backed for years by U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a former Chattanooga mayor. Georgia Republican State Sen. Jeff Mullis, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, and former Hamilton County Republican Chairman Wayne Cropp, chief executive of the Enterprise Center, also have worked to promote a maglev train to Chattanooga.

Mr. Mullis sponsored a resolution adopted by the Georgia Senate this month backing “the Plane Train” to link Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport to Chattanooga’s Lovell Field with a maglev train.

But Sen. Corker said the maglev technology won’t be ready to deploy for years and such projects shouldn’t have been included in a stimulus measure designed to provide an immediate jolt to the sagging economy.

“I’ve supported high-speed rail efforts, but there’s not a maglev project in the country that is shovel ready,” Mr. Corker said. “If Chattanooga was to receive the funding, which is highly unlikely, there would not be a significant impact in the next 24 months as a result.”

Mr. Wamp said Wednesday that the final version of the maglev portion of the stimulus bill amounted to an “earmark for Sen. Reid.”

“I understand that was the first project out of the box, but it doesn’t do anything for the people east of the Mississippi River, where most of our population resides,” he said.

Under the stimulus package, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood must submit a plan by mid-April on how the $8 billion for intercity, high-speed rail service will be used. Project backers for other high-speed train proposals said they also will be competing for the funds.

Joe Ferguson, an Enterprise Center consultant who is working on a proposed high-speed train route from Atlanta to Nashville through Chattanooga, said stimulus funding would help pay for additional environmental and engineering studies needed with the pending completion of current funding from both the Georgia and Tennessee transportation departments.

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