Japanese rail company offers ideas for here

Japanese rail company offers ideas for here

June 4th, 2010 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

The Central Japan Railway Co., developer of the maglev high-speed train line in Japan, proposed a partnership with city and regional leaders at the Enterprise Center's quarterly board meeting Thursday.

Chattanooga's Joe Ferguson, a proponent of a high-speed rail link serving Chattanooga, Atlanta and Nashville, said that JR Central is the safest and best performing high-speed rail operator in the world, and a good partner for Chattanooga.

"They're on top of the heap when it comes to high-speed rail," Mr. Ferguson said.

The presentation by JR Central came on the heels of a statement by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood that "America is going to get in the high-speed intercity rail business ... and I hope that includes, for my money, from Atlanta Hartsfield (airport) to Chicago through Chattanooga, Nashville and beyond."

Mr. LaHood recently traveled to Japan to test the experimental MLX01 maglev, which has a top speed of 361 miles per hour, but is still in the experimental stage and costs much more to build than the still-fast N700-I train, which runs at about 205 miles per hour and is widely used in Japan.

Torkel Patterson, speaking on behalf of JR Central, said the cost of a high-speed rail link between cities in the Southeast should be compared with the cost of upgrading and maintaining current transportation options.

"Yes, it's expensive, but how much does it cost to build another airport runway, or add a lane to I-75?" he asked, noting that these projects run well into the hundreds of millions.

Mayor Littlefield pledged that although the city was facing a "very cantankerous City Council on budgets," he had reached agreement with key council members on maintaining a $1.3 million budget line to move the plan forward.

"You can count on me," Mr. Littlefield said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., had a separate meeting Thursday with the Chattanooga Times Free Press editorial board and said most of the plans he has seen involve a "backbone" of high-speed rail from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta cutting through the Carolinas and East Georgia paralleling Interstate 85. He said smaller lines would connect cities like Charleston, S.C., and Chattanooga to the main spine.

Sen. Isakson, who is running for his second Senate term in November, said the line should be operated like an airport with federal dollars building the infrastructure but private companies handling the service.

In connection with the presentation at the Enterprise Center, Mr. Ferguson said the next step is to continue to build public and private funds to make the project eligible for matching government grants.

"We've got to make this $3.9 million match, and that needs to be divided between Atlanta, North Georgia and Chattanooga," Mr. Ferguson said. "That's why the mayor has $1.3 million in his capital budget, and we need to get that done by June."

If the necessary funds are brought together, the rail project eventually could be eligible for $2 billion in next year's federal budget, which would be enough to start construction, Mr. Ferguson said.

Staff writer Andy Johns contributed to this report.