By Guest Columnist STEVE VOGEL, president of the Georgia Association of Railroad Passengers
It’s like trying to jump on a train that’s already pulling out of the station.
Georgia is seeking a share of $8 billion in federal stimulus money earmarked for the development of a national high-speed passenger train network. At first glance, it might look like there’s a good chance of getting some of that money.Georgia is on two of the proposed corridors: the Southeast Corridor from Washington, D.C.
to Florida, and the Gulf Coast Corridor from Atlanta to Houston.
But here’s the problem: There’s a long line of states trying to climb aboard this train, and Georgia is at the end of the ticket line, asking for a free ride.
Granted, $8 billion may sound like a fortune. But in terms of building a national high-speed rail network, it’s only seed money. As of mid-July, the U.S. Department of Transportation had received 278 pre-applications for grants totaling $102 billion, more than 12 times the amount that’s available.
The federal government is going to have to pick and choose. And in order to get the most bang for buck, transportation officials in Washington are likely to pick states that are willing to invest some of their own money in passenger trains.
More than a dozen states across the country already fund conventional intercity passenger trains. Many have already developed detailed plans for operating high-speed service. Wisconsin, for example, recently strengthened its case for getting high-speed rail money, when it agreed to buy two, 14-car trainsets for use between Chicago and Milwaukee. The manufacturer agreed to build the trains in Wisconsin, bringing badly needed jobs to the state.
Here in the Southeast, North Carolina has for many years funded two daily round-trip trains between Charlotte and Raleigh. Two new, state-funded trains will be running in Virginia by the end of this year, one round-trip between Lynchburg and Washington, DC, and the other between Richmond and Washington. These are conventional passenger trains, but both North Carolina and Virginia are deep into planning for high-speed rail.
Georgia, on the other hand, has never provided any substantial state funding for any form of passenger rail, and has participated only in very preliminary planning for high-speed trains.
If federal high-speed rail money comes to the Southeast this year, North Carolina and Virginia are the most obvious recipients. Because of their planning, and their current train operations, they can put the federal money to work quickly. That raises the distinct possibility that, at least in the beginning, the Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor will run only from Washington, D.C. to Charlotte. Atlanta could be left stranded.
The good news for Georgia is that this year’s stimulus bill isn’t the end of the line. The Obama administration plans to ask Congress for more high-speed rail funding over the next several years, and some of that money could come to Georgia if it demonstrates a new commitment to passenger rail.
Here are a few steps our state officials could take to demonstrate that commitment:
* Stop stalling on commuter rail – Several years ago, Congress gave Georgia $87 million to help start a commuter rail line. That money remains unused, because Georgia has never committed a local match to pay for the project. If Georgia won’t use the federal money already offered, why should the government give it more?
* Help MARTA – When the Georgia General Assembly adjourned earlier this year without addressing MARTA’s funding crisis, without even giving MARTA permission to take steps to avoid draconian service cutbacks, it demonstrated a callous disregard for public transportation.
One of the biggest benefits of high-speed rail is its ability to bring passengers directly to the center of the city. Without a robust transit system to accommodate passengers after they arrive, that benefit is diminished.
After the General Assembly blew off MARTA last year, the Atlanta Regional Commission stepped in with federal stimulus money to help MARTA avoid huge service cuts this year, but that’s only a onetime fix. The General Assembly will have another chance to address the MARTA crisis next year. If it ignores the problem again, that will send a very bad signal.
• Invest in conventional-speed passenger service between Atlanta and Charlotte as an interim step – The only current passenger train linking Atlanta and Charlotte is Amtrak’s federally funded Crescent, which runs between New Orleans and New York. While the Crescent serves Atlanta at convenient times, its Charlotte stops are in the middle of the night, making it impractical for many travelers. Meanwhile, the state of North Carolina funds another Amtrak train called the Piedmont between Raleigh and Charlotte. If Georgia transportation officials agreed to provide money for an Atlanta-to-Charlotte extension of the Piedmont line that was more passenger
friendly than the Crescent, track speeds and capacity could be increased, over time. The eventual result would be high-speed rail corridor between Atlanta and Charlotte.
Georgia is getting a very late start on high-speed passenger rail. But if it we begin taking steps right now, if we look at high-speed rail as a state-federal partnership rather than a free ride, we can still get on board before it’s too late.