Atlanta finally on board plan for high-speed rail to Chattanooga

photo Phyllis Stephens asks a question about a map of a proposed high speed rail line in this 2010 file photo.

For the first time since the idea started gaining steam over a decade ago, Atlanta is committing funds for a study related to the proposed bullet train between Chattanooga and Georgia's capital, an official says.

"They're finally having some vision," said Joe Ferguson, who oversees the high-speed rail project for Chattanooga's Enterprise Center, about $250,000 Atlanta is chipping into the study.

When the bullet train idea started to leave the station in 1998, Jon Kinsey was mayor of Chattanooga, Newt Gingrich was speaker of the U.S. House and Bill Clinton was president.

But up to now, Atlanta had not provided funding for studying the project while Chattanooga has pledged at least $1.7 million, figures show.

Tom Weyandt, senior policy adviser for transportation in Atlanta, said this week that city officials are eager to find passenger rail connections, not only to Chattanooga but also to other corridors around the Southeast, including some to the south.

"It's in our long-range interest to try to keep these projects moving," Weyandt said.

The Atlanta money will help match about $13 million in federal funds and speed up the environmental assessment of a high-speed train between the cities.

In addition to the Atlanta funds and $1.3 million from Chattanooga, the Georgia Department of Transportation is providing $1.5 million.

David Spear, a GDOT spokesman, said he hoped that a final environmental impact statement "record of decision" would be issued in 2012.

"Then it would be, like so many pending proposals and projects, a matter of priorities and funding -- primarily at the federal level," he said.

Ferguson said Tuesday that Georgia is on board with the project. He said it's fairly recent that certain leadership in the Atlanta area has come to recognize the city's role as a potential high-speed rail hub.

"Planners and leadership see high-speed or conventional passenger rail could be something Atlanta can be a key player for," Ferguson said.

Asked if he had heard that Delta Air Lines had encouraged Atlanta to drag its feet relating to high-speed rail in the past, Ferguson said he had never heard conversations about that.

Also asked if the issue of a potential water deal permitting Georgia to access the Tennessee River was in play, the longtime rapid-raid advocate said he had never heard current Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed or his key staff people raise that idea.

"That's never been mentioned to me," Ferguson said.

Business editor Dave Flessner contributed to this story.

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