A high-speed rail link between Atlanta and Chattanooga could draw between 2.6 and 4 million passengers annually when it finally gets under way in 2020, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation.
The number is important because some political leaders are saying the pricey rail links, which are proposed across the country, should be built in densely populated urban centers that can pack as many passengers as possible onto the multibillion-dollar investments.
Georgia DOT officials say the ridership estimate is based on figures gathered by regional planning organizations along the proposed 110-mile train path.
The estimate could potentially be lower than the actual number of riders, said Alan Ware, the DOT project manager.
"It's like anything -- if you build a new road, people always say, 'Why do we need that new road?' and then that one time they use it, they say, 'Wow, that made everything a whole lot easier,'" Ware said. "All of a sudden it becomes real popular."
Ridership figures are based on how many people would ride any leg of the route in a given day, Ware said.
The train has proposed stops at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, downtown, Kennesaw, Cartersville, Dalton, Lovell Field in Chattanooga and downtown Chattanooga.
North Carolina and Florida have rail proposals of their own.
By 2020, North Carolina predicts 1.7 million riders on its portion of an 80-mph line linking Charlotte, Raleigh, Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C.
Florida is working on an 84-mile line between Orlando and Tampa that is predicted to carry 2.4 million riders. Illinois and Missouri are looking at a high-speed line between Chicago and St. Louis and they project 1.4 million to 2.5 million riders annually.
SPEED AND COST
The Georgia DOT's estimated $6 billion to $9 billion cost is significantly higher than some of the other lines.
The Chattanooga-Atlanta line would travel at least 180 miles an hour at cruising speed. The extra expense for faster speeds would make the others look "pokey," said Joe Ferguson, who has spearheaded the rail line for the Enterprise Center in Chattanooga.
"If you do it right and you give them the speed and the comfort and the reliability, people are going to ride it," Ferguson said.
He said another cost would be rights of way or tunnels in downtown Atlanta, but he said some estimates say the line would cost between $5 billion and $6 billion.
The Florida DOT says trains will travel at least 168 mph and expects the project to cost $2.7 billion, and Illinois officials' estimate is more than $4 billion.
"Remember, we don't have mountains," said Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association.
Patrick Simmons, director of rail for North Carolina, downplayed any competition.
"I'm just happy the folks are getting the numbers out there for people to look at," he said. "A rising tide lifts all boats. We need viable transportation alternatives in America."
Such cost projections make lawmakers flinch.
Last week, U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Georgia, said the Atlanta-Chattanooga link was on the back burner until the federal government reins in spending.
Florida Rep. John Mica, the new Republican chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has said high-speed rail should first be built in the population-dense Northeast.
"I am a strong advocate of high-speed rail, but it has to be where it makes sense," Mica told The Associated Press after the November elections.
New Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, said the state needs to improve its transportation network, but it should rethink how it funds such projects.
"We must think innovatively to find alternative funding sources," Deal said in his first State of the State address. "In particular, because Georgia is an attractive destination for investment with a strong balance sheet and good demographics, public-private partnerships hold incredible potential."
Already, Georgia has funneled $14 million to study the Atlanta-Chattanooga rail link.
This month, the Georgia DOT is supposed to forward draft proposals for the project to DOT leaders as well as the federal highway and railroad administrations.