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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 2/2/17. Chris Long, Mayor Andy Berke and Larry Grohn, from left, listen and wait their turn as David Crockett speaks during a mayoral forum at the Bessie Smith Hall on Thursday, February 2, 2017.

Mayoral hopeful David Crockett blames Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke for slowing the city's momentum to getting a high-speed rail connection to Atlanta.

The core message of the three-time former councilman's campaign to unseat Berke has been to fully embrace the idea of significantly boosting Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport flights by means of magnetic levitation trains that would draw passengers — and traffic congestion — away from Hartsfield- Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The proposed 30- minute rail connection would "profoundly" transform economic development in Chattanooga, he has said.

The project, which would require billions in Federal Railway Administration dollars to build, has been under consideration since 1998, back when Crockett served on the Chattanooga City Council. Since then, Chattanooga has put $1.3 million toward a $17.1 million environmental study conducted by the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Crockett cited President Donald Trump's call to reinvest in America's infrastructure and his focus on high-speed rail systems, like those found in Japan and Germany.

On Friday, Crockett voiced his allegations against Berke during a news conference held at the City Council building.

"Yesterday I learned, for the first time, that the mayor of the city of Chattanooga immediately decided to not pursue the maglev, and even went so far as to call the Georgia Department of Transportation — or have his staff do it — to retrieve the money that we had put into the project for the environmental impact study," Crockett said. "He has quietly done that and really pulled the wool over the public's eyes that they had completely exited the high-speed rail conversation."

Crockett would not name his source for the allegation except to say it was "someone involved in the rail initiative."

The Berke campaign said Crockett's claims are false.

The money put toward the rail project under former Mayor Ron Littlefield remains in place and Berke never asked for any of it to be returned, Berke campaign manager Tyler Yount said in an email Friday.

"Mayor Berke assigned this project to the city's Department of Transportation and the project currently is overseen by a highly skilled project manager that is focused on high speed rail to create more connections for our citizens," Yount said. "The $8.7 billion project is positioned to move forward if federal funds become available."

Considering the price tag, neither Chattanooga nor the state could pursue the project without federal help, Yount said.

Berke hasn't disconnected from the project, either, said Yount.

"Both Mayor Berke and staff in CDOT have met with rail stakeholders to discuss a variety of projects throughout this administration, and examine ways we can work to improve transportation options for Chattanoogans," he said.

Previously, Crockett simply accused the Berke administration of "dropping the baton" in the long relay race to make high-speed rail a reality.

In May 2015, Berke said the project did not seem likely, speaking during a meeting with Times Free Press editors and reporters. In that conversation, he said he doubted there was enough money or political will to see it through.

In November, Littlefield said he remains optimistic about the bullet train project. Littlefield has been a strong supporter of the proposed Atlanta- Chattanooga maglev rail connection.

Councilman Larry Grohn, another mayoral hopeful, watched Crockett's news conference. Later, he questioned what the Chattanooga mayor really could do to move the rail project forward, comparing it to the long-stalled federal project to rehabilitate the Chickamauga Dam lock.

"How much influence have they [Chattanooga mayors] had on funding for the Chickamauga locks?" Grohn asked. "That's how much influence any Chattanooga mayor will have on any project coming out of the Federal Railway Administration."

Grohn also poked at Crockett's assertion the rail would have to be a 30-minute ride between North Atlanta and the Chattanooga airport or it would not be worth doing.

"To think that GDOT would allow high-speed rail to go all the way from Atlanta to Chattanooga without stopping someplace else between here is ludicrous," Grohn said.

In a recent forum, mayoral candidate Chris Long described the high-speed rail project as "pie-in-the-sky" thinking.

Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or pleach@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.

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