Candidates differ on high speed rail plans

Candidates differ on high speed rail plans

May 8th, 2010 by Andy Johns in Politics State

If candidates for Tuesday's special congressional election in Georgia weren't well acquainted with the 9th District's transportation system, they certainly have seen plenty of it while driving to campaign events from Trenton to Cumming.

Even before he began driving the winding, narrow roads in the district's center and the congested highways of the east and west, former state Sen. Bill Stephens said he knew the region faced transportation issues.

Mr. Stephens, a former state Senate majority leader and former chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he would like to see an "east-west connector" running north of Canton and Cartersville but south of Jasper. The new route is important for future population and business growth in the 9th District, he said.

Six Republicans, a Democrat and an independent will be on the 9th District special election ballot Tuesday. They're seeking to replace former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, who resigned to run for governor.

Mr. Stephens said that if elected, he would push to join the House's Transportation Infrastructure Committee and would use that position to explore funding options for a high-speed rail line from Nashville to Atlanta.

The rail line, often called the bullet train or maglev, would transport riders from Nashville to Atlanta through Chattanooga and Northwest Georgia as fast as 300 miles per hour.

The project, which has been estimated to cost between $40 million and $100 million per mile, has become a talking point for several candidates in the congressional race.

Tom Graves, a former state representative and real estate developer from Ranger, said he likes the idea of a bullet train, but would like to see it as a public-private partnership where the state and federal agencies would help a private firm get the rights of way for the line. The private firm would then study routes, build the tracks and operate the train under government regulations.

Mr. Graves said many of the state's problems stem from the lack of return on transportation dollars from the federal government. He said Georgia is considered a "donor state" in terms of gasoline tax because the Peach State only gets back about 90 percent of what it contributes to the federal tax pot.

If elected, he said he would push to get 100 percent of Georgia's money back and look for good applications for more public-private transportation projects, including high-occupancy toll lanes and new toll roads.

Steve Tarvin, a Chickamauga native who runs Crystal Springs Print Works, shares Mr. Graves' attitude when it comes to a privately run bullet train.

He said the federal government has never run other rail projects profitably, and noted that the Erie Canal between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario was built by a private businesses.

Overall, though, Mr. Tarvin is not a maglev fan. He said it would not bring much to Northwest Georgia and predicted it would close down the Chattanooga airport if locals could hop on a train and get to Atlanta.

He said the train might add more people to the region, but wouldn't add any businesses aside from retail.

"You've got to show me where something can be profitable," Mr. Tarvin said.

He said he supports an east-west corridor connecting Interstate 59 to Interstate 75 and eventually I-75 to I-85.

Dr. Lee Hawkins, who lives in Gainesville where the congestion of the Atlanta suburbs is starting to arrive, also sees the need for an east-west highway. He said the longer the planners wait, the more difficult it will be to build.

"This is not rocket science," he said. "We should have done this a long time ago."

He also pledged to consult with county and municipal associations to get input on mass transit, including the maglev.

But Dr. Chris Cates tempered expectations. The Blairsville heart specialist said an east-west artery and a high-speed rail track would be worth looking into, but the state's economic problems put both out of the question for the time being.

Independent Eugene Moon, a manager at a Gainesville electric company, agreed.

"We need to be worried about jobs or we're not going to need the transportation grid," he said. "We need jobs, we don't need roads."

Mr. Moon, who has campaigned heavily on supporting states' rights and a smaller federal government, said he would oppose a high-speed rail line funded through federal agencies.

Dr. Bert Loftman, a neurosurgeon from Pickens County, said the U.S. Constitution doesn't authorize the federal government to be involved in transportation. He said it should be up to state leaders to determine Georgia's transportation needs and execute a plan.

Former Episcopal minister Mike Freeman, the lone Democrat in the race, said he liked the idea of mass transit options in the district, but said it might take a few generations before people embraced alternative transportation.

He said the region needs an east-west corridor for growth but he wants to be very cautious about the environmental impact to the area.

"That is some of the most beautiful geography in all of Georgia," Mr. Freeman said. "Do we want to put another interstate-type road through that?"

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