No ticket to ride for local mag-lev

No ticket to ride for local mag-lev

April 18th, 2009 in Local Regional News

The proposed high-speed rail between Atlanta and Chattanooga is being left behind at the station in President Barack Obama's new $13 billion initiative to promote faster trains.

The White House is targeting $8 billion in this year's stimulus package - and an additional $1 billion in annual budget requests for each of the next five years - to 10 existing passenger rail corridors across the country.

But in its new "Vision for High-Speed Rail," the U.S. Department of Transportation isn't getting onboard yet with the decade-old plan for a bullet train to connect the Atlanta and Chattanooga airports.

"It's unfortunate that the president's approach seems to be just giving vitamins to Amtrak, which frankly is a system that has not been successful," U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., said Friday. "I think if you really want a successful high-speed rail network, then you have to throw the ball deep, think like Dwight Eisenhower did with the interstate highway system in the 1950s and put more money in this and look for a bolder technology."

U.S Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the $8 billion to be spent this year and next on high-speed rail should begin "to build a world-class network of high-speed passenger rail corridors." The initial plan supports "shovel-ready" projects that can create jobs and upgrade intercity travel "over the next several years while also creating a pipeline of projects to enable future corridor development."

The Chattanooga-Atlanta route eventually could be part of that pipeline. Local backers of a high-speed route along Interstate 75 in North Georgia are trying to convince Mr. LaHood to provide $15 million for additional study of the route and the feasibility of a magnetic levitation train that can travel more than 300 miles an hour, or more than twice as fast as the high-speed trains included in the stimulus package.

"We're trying to get an audience with Secretary LaHood to make our case," said Joe Ferguson, an executive with the Enterprise Center who is working on the proposed mag-lev train corridor through Chattanooga.

Tennessee and Georgia transportation officials are pushing a proposed high-speed rail route from Atlanta to Nashville through Chattanooga. Although not among the targeted corridors in the Obama stimulus plan, Mr. Ferguson said he still is encouraged by the president's support for faster trains. The success of those ventures could spur more interest and funding in the future for a bullet train to Chattanooga, he said.

Local backers of a high-speed train, including Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield and state Senate Transportation Committee member Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, have been pushing for a mag-lev train to be built from Atlanta to Chattanooga's Lovell Field to help relieve some of the growing pressure on Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, the world's busiest airport last year.

The Federal Railroad Administration has estimated a mag-lev train from Atlanta to Chattanooga would cost about $4.5 billion. But Mr. Ferguson stressed "that is still cheaper than building another runway at the Atlanta airport."

David Spear, a spokesman for Georgia Department of Transportation, said the stimulus plan identified two corridors through Atlanta for potential stimulus funding - Amtrak's Crescent City route that runs from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans, and an East Coast route that runs from Charlotte, N.C., to Atlanta and continues through Macon and Savannah, Ga., before reaching Jacksonville, Fla.

By upgrading tracks and equipment, Mr. Obama said trains capable of going from 100 mph up to 150 mph may speed along such corridors. Such trains can move passengers for only one-third of the fuel consumption of comparable car traffic, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"Unfortunately, that route (from Atlanta to Chattanooga) doesn't qualify for the stimulus funds because it was not on a high-speed corridor," Mr. Spear said. "But we would hope to get some of the funding from last year's bill to begin an environmental assessment of the routes and technology we could use for the Atlanta-to-Chattanooga route."