Georgia offers to swap road and rail for water

photo The Tennessee River flows through Chattanooga. Staff photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press
photo David Ralston, Georgia's House Speaker.

Georgia's House speaker says leaders from his state need to sit down with Tennessee officials and discuss trading transportation enhancements for access to the water in the Tennessee River.

During a recent radio interview with WABE-FM in Atlanta, Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said his state might be willing to offer improved rail, roads or other links between Chattanooga and Georgia air and sea ports in exchange for access to the river.

"It would seem to me that if Georgia and Tennessee are willing to sort of think outside of the box and think long term here, then we can have a discussion about addressing some of the transportation needs that that part of Tennessee may have as well as addressing the water needs of Georgia," Ralston told the radio station. "That's a discussion that would be an exciting and interesting one to have."

During the radio interview, Ralston would not set a timetable for such meetings, but he said Monday he'd like for policymakers from the neighboring states to sit down "maybe later this year."

The speaker said Tennessee could benefit from having direct links to Atlanta's airport and Savannah's seaport, which Volkswagen named earlier this year as its primary import point for its suppliers' parts. In exchange, Ralston said, Georgia would be allowed to pump water from the Tennessee River down to the Atlanta metro area, which ran dangerously low on water during the drought in 2007 and 2008.

But any plans for potential water transfers must go through the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and officials with the agency said they had not heard from Georgia state officials. "It would be premature to speculate on what action might be taken since we do not have a specific proposal," a TDEC spokeswoman said.

During his gubernatorial run, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's campaign said he would "protect our state's precious resources and will fight any attempt to ... siphon off our water." A spokesman with his office said Monday that Haslam's position is unchanged and deferred questions to TDEC.

Also Monday, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal told The Associated Press that there are possibilities for a water deal with Tennessee, but said there had been no official contact.

"Obviously, I don't think we want to get into a state boundary line dispute or anything like that," Deal said Monday.

Ralston said he does not know how his overtures will be taken in Tennessee, but he remains hopeful and said the rail-and-road-for-river swap has come up in meetings he's attended with Tennessee officials. Informal discussion probably would come first, he said.

"I'm not looking for a high-level summit," he said.

When other officials have brought up similar swaps, most center around a high-speed-rail connection between the Atlanta and Chattanooga airports, he said. It wouldn't necessarily be a bullet train, Ralston said, but could be some other form of transportation.

Georgia had been looking for federal funding to build such a rail line, which would add to the deal's complexity.

Obviously, Ralston said, ironing out the details will take time.

"This is a big idea, and big ideas take time to bring to reality," he said.

Contact staff writer Andy Johns at ajohns@timesfree or call 423-757-6324.