"It's the flights, stupid."
That's David Crockett's mantra when it comes to the long-sought bullet train between Chattanooga and Atlanta, an idea now at a key juncture with the completion of a lengthy federal study.
Crockett, a high-speed-train advocate and former Chattanooga city councilman, said attracting fliers from the North Atlanta suburbs to Lovell Field and relieving busy Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport still makes the project viable after the decade-long study.
The federal environmental study sets a preferred train route that's aligned with Interstate 75 between the cities. It calls for building eight rail stations along the 120 miles of I-75, starting at the Atlanta airport and ending at Lovell Field and downtown Chattanooga. Travel time is 88 minutes from the first to the last station.
The study puts the construction cost at $8.76 billion.
So far, it's estimated that more than $16 million has gone into the high-speed study from city, state and federal governments.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in a statement released with the report that the project would mean more efficient transportation for both cities along with rail access to rural communities between them.
"This has been a long time in the making and represents a response to numerous transportation needs along the I-75 corridor," Chao said.
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., said the next step is a "tier 2 study."
"When, and if, this study would take place is up to the discretion of the Tennessee and Georgia departments of transportation. I will continue to monitor the situation as it progresses," he said.
The federal report said that future study would determine maximum operating train speeds, station locations and the exact alignment "if additional funding is secured."
Eight stops are called for on the bullet train route between Chattanooga and Atlanta:
› Downtown Chattanooga
› Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport
› Dalton, Ga.
› Cartersville, Ga.
› Town Center in Marietta, Ga.
› Cumberland Galleria in Cobb County, Ga.
› Downtown Atlanta
› Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
Source: Federal Railroad Administration
President Donald Trump has talked about including high-speed rail funding in a massive $1 trillion infrastructure package for the country.
Crockett said the high-speed rail link "creates a new economy in a manufacturing region. That's what Trump is trying to do. It helps rejuvenate the steel industry. The president will like this."
Crockett said that potentially wooing 5 million air travelers a year to Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport would almost pay for building the train link. Chattanooga's airport now serves about 850,000 passengers a year.
› 11,725: Projected daily riders
› $8.76 billion: Cost of Chattanooga-Atlanta bullet train
› 76 percent: Amount of project on existing transportation corridor
Source: Federal Railroad Adminstration
At the same time, the train would provide some relief to the crush of travelers at Atlanta's airport, which sees 100 million passengers annually.
"That's the only way to justify the cost of a train from a metro of a half million to a metro of 5 million," Crockett said.
He said Lovell Field would need to increase its capacity from the current 50 or so flights a day to 150 a day.
Chattanoogan Joe Ferguson, who for several years shepherded the train initiative for the city, said there are a lot of demands for federal dollars.
"There are so many priorities," he said, citing transportation needs in just the Chattanooga area.
Still, Ferguson said, he looks at the traffic on I-75 now and imagines how congested it will be in another five years or so.
"We're not going to be able to move the way we want to," he said. "It's the will at the federal level to put money on the table to get things done."
Crockett, who began working on the rapid-rail effort nearly 20 years ago, said speed will be key, so the potential bullet train can get people from the North Atlanta suburbs to Chattanooga's airport within 40 minutes.
He called for magnetic levitation, or magleve, technology used in China and Japan or even something faster if that's available. He supports having some direct trains that don't stop at every station along the way.
"The intent wasn't for a commuter train," Crockett said.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said last year that if an infrastructure bill comes before Congress, the city will work with Georgia on identifying opportunities if they are funded.
Crockett said the bullet train isn't a transportation effort but rather "a transformation project."
"Our economy would be transformed nearly overnight," he said. "It would bring jobs, great jobs, knowledge-based jobs."
Contact staff writer Mike Pare at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6318.