Northwest Georgia could be defined in coming years based upon whether high-speed rail comes through the area, transportation officials say.
"Probably, two years ago, it was a bit of a pipe dream," said Erik Steavens, director of intermodal programs for the Georgia Department of Transportation.
But since President Barack Obama made high-speed rail one of his priorities and threw billions of dollars into the pot, the game has changed tremendously, Mr. Steavens said.
"You're talking more of Chattanooga as a suburb of Atlanta," he said. "Or the other way around, Atlanta as a suburb of Chattanooga."
Georgia officials said this week that North Georgia is currently defined by one main corridor, Interstate 75. But the future could bring several options, including high-speed rail and a corridor peeling east off I-75 and then south toward Interstate 85, south of Atlanta.
One unlikely option is more work to widen I-75, officials said.
"Our connectivity is going to be the high-speed rail," said GDOT spokesman David Spear.
High-speed rail progress
Mr. Steavens said Wednesday that almost $21 million has been pumped into an environmental study of high-speed rail between Atlanta and Chattanooga, a report that could be concluded by the end of the year. He said there are 23 possible routes between the two cities.
He could not say on how much city-to-city high-speed rail could ultimately cost, but the Federal Railroad Administration has put the cost at about $4.5 billion.
State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee in the Georgia General Assembly. He thinks the future of transportation will be in high-speed rail, much like it already is in Europe and Japan, and that "Georgia and Chattanooga continue to be a player" in perhaps receiving billions for high-speed rail from the Obama administration.
Such rail would give residents in rural areas access to urban centers like such as Atlanta and Chattanooga, he said.
"It would bring opportunity to Northwest Georgia, especially those with (rail) terminals," he said.
Mr. Steavens said such a rail line would help lure international companies to the area because they would have access to two airports - Chattanooga and Atlanta.
Another transportation option that could be considered is a freight corridor that would allow truck traffic to bypass Atlanta, Mr. Spear said.
He said there was talk during former Gov. Roy Barnes' administration of an "outer perimeter" around Atlanta beyond the current bypass, Interstate 285.
Georgia DOT officials and Gov. Sonny Perdue have abandoned that concept, but they agree a corridor linking I-75 and I-85 is needed, he said. There is no funding and no route for this plan, he said, but it would definitely start toward the northern end of I-75.
Georgia officials also are looking at "multimodal" transportation that serves motor vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians, officials said. A recent example is the $1.7 million streetscape on Chickamauga Boulevard in Rossville.
Melissa Taylor, director of transportation planning for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County-North Georgia Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the group just conducted a long-range transportation plan and found creating a multimodal network would be a key component.
Besides bicycle and pedestrian walkways, such a network would mean coming up with good public transportation alternatives for larger cities such as Chattanooga, she said.
"Our past travel models have been automobile driven," she said.
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