The quest to link Chattanooga and Atlanta by high-speed rail just got a little more focused.
On Thursday, the public got up-close views of the latest plans, and for now those drafts have been tailored to focus on a line that zips straight down Interstate 75 to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Previously, the Georgia Department of Transportation had been considering 18 different zig-zagging routes that stretched from Atlanta to Rome, Ga., and some even went 20 or so miles to the east of I-75.
Now, with the route more defined, the state can begin studying all the implications of building the rails. They could have a plan before the U.S. Department of Transportation for approval by mid-2012.
Even though the project is moving quickly, it could be as long as 10 years before it's actually funded and construction can begin.
But the Atlanta-Chattanooga project still is outpacing other rail proposals in a network of lines that transportation leaders foresee linking Chicago to Jacksonville, Fla.
"This particular corridor is in the most advanced phase right now as far as planning and environmental assessment goes," said L.N. Manchi, a consultant for Moreland Altobelli Associates, a Norcross, Ga.-based traffic engineering firm hired by DOT to plan the rail line. "The Atlanta-Chattanooga segment is really a lead segment in terms of planning."
On Thursday, roughly 100 people turned out for a public meeting on the project. This was the first in a series of three meetings on the proposal. The next meeting is Monday in Dalton, Ga., followed by a Tuesday meeting in Atlanta.
After those gatherings, the state will develop a draft environmental impact statement followed by a final environmental statement which then will be submitted for final approval by mid-2012. The updated plan calls for a stop at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport and in downtown.
Funding the project is a big hurdle. The state was not as far along as California and Florida in planning when the federal government handed out billions for high-speed rail earlier this year.
But two weeks ago, while speaking to transportation planners in Macon, Ga., U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the state could be in line for funding in the next five to six years if it "got its act together."
Also on Thursday, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who will oversee the committee when Republicans take control in January, said he didn't think the Florida and California projects should be funded because in his view they weren't true high-speed rail.
He said the northeast should get first dibs on high-speed rail because it has the population density to support the investment.
Georgia's rail project is the only rail line being planned from the outset to accommodate either maglev or steel-wheeled trains that can go as fast as 180 mph, Manchi said.
The rail line, however distant in the future, excited the crowd Thursday.
"I could see myself using it to shop, see sporting events, concerts, anything," said Matthew Adams, who attended Thursday's forum. "If it goes above 180 mph, you could be there in a hour, so you could really have a weekend day in Atlanta."
This type of travel could be commonplace in 50 years or so, said Horace Hatcher, who brought his grandsons to the event with signs proclaiming the virtues of high-speed rail.
"Fifty years from now, I want people to look back at high-speed rail and think of it as being like the Eisenhower interstate system," said Hatcher, whose 11-year-old grandson, Tyrese, is putting together a documentary on high-speed rail.
"I really just want to get on one of the trains," Tyrese said. "They look like they'd be fun to ride on."