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Pro-transit Biden administration gives metro Atlanta a chance to pivot to rail

President Joe Biden in Philadelphia April 30 celebrating the 50th anniversary of AMTRAK (Special: AMTRAK)

By Maria Saporta

At long last, we have a president who understands the value of rail – both for passengers and freight.

President Joe Biden attended the 50th anniversary of AMTRAK in Philadelphia on April 30 when he eloquently spoke about the need to build out our nation’s rail infrastructure.

AMTRAK’s Brookwood Station (Photo by Maria Saporta)

The message is particularly relevant to Atlanta – a city created as a junction of three rail lines. AMTRAK recently released plans to significantly improve its Atlanta service as part of Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan.

AMTRAK envisions expanded passenger rail service from Atlanta to Savannah through Macon; Atlanta to Nashville, TN; and enhanced service between Atlanta and Alabama (Montgomery and Birmingham) as well as possible high-speed rail between Atlanta and Charlotte, NC.

“Today we have a once in a generation opportunity to position Amtrak and rail and inner-city rail…to make investments that can help America get back on track, no pun intended,” Biden said during the AMTRAK event.

“This would allow for the potential to expand passenger rail service. Imagine a two-hour train ride between Atlanta and Charlotte going at speeds of 220 miles per hour.”

Metro Atlanta would benefit greatly under AMTRAK’s proposal to expand its service as part of the Biden infrastructure plan (Special: AMTRAK)

Transportation officials in metro Atlanta and Georgia must seize upon the opportunity presented by the Biden administration to finally invest in our rail infrastructure. After several administrations that favored road-based investments, such as bus rapid transit, we now have an opportunity to have a more balanced transportation network that includes rail with all of its inherent advantages.

“We’d be crazy as a region if we didn’t try to figure out ways to take advantage of the pro-rail administration in Washington right now,” former MARTA Chairman Robbie Ashe wrote in a text. “Some obvious projects that would qualify are Campbellton Road, the BeltLine, and the Clifton corridor.”

Biden, who has been riding AMTRAK between Washington, D.C. and Delaware for decades, clearly understands how rail should be part of our future.

“I’ve come to see that AMTRAK doesn’t just carry us from one place to another, it opens up enormous possibilities, especially now,” Biden said. “It makes it possible to build an economy of the future. Last week I announced the target of cutting greenhouse gases and gas emissions in half by 2030, and most of those emissions in this country come from transportation.”

President Joe Biden in Philadelphia April 30 celebrating the 50th anniversary of AMTRAK (Special: AMTRAK)

Biden said that if just 10 percent of the freight shipped went by rail instead of by trucks, it would be equivalent to removing 3.3 million cars on the road or planting 260 million trees.

Atlanta is now home to Norfolk Southern, one of the largest railroads in the country. Could Biden’s infrastructure plan present an opportunity for the federal government to invest in improving privately-owned rail lines in exchange for allowing passenger trains along those corridors? That could include removing at-grade crossings or double-tracking so there could be improved service for both freight and passenger trains.

“For years I fought efforts to cut funding for AMTRAK because cutting funding for Amtrak would be a disaster for our environment and our economy,” Biden said. “Transit is part of the infrastructure. Like the rest of our infrastructure, we’re way behind the rest of the world right now.”

Biden said our infrastructure is what will allow the United States to compete with the rest of the world.

“To win the 21st century, we’ve got to move. China already has 23,000 miles of high-speed rail going at 220 miles per hour,” Biden said. “We’re behind the curve. But folks, as I said the other night. America is on the move again. We need to remember that we’re in the United States of America, there’s nothing beyond our capacity, nothing we can’t do if we do it together.”

The same is true of Atlanta and Georgia, but only if our leaders seize on the opportunity for rail transportation.

AMTRAK’s current rail map (Special: AMTRAK)

Take AMTRAK’s proposal to expand service in Atlanta. We would need a central connecting place for those rail lines to converge – just as they did when Atlanta was founded. The railroad gulch has long been envisioned to be the site of a multimodal station. But the developers who own the gulch (CIM Group) have yet to commit to including a grand central station in their plans.

Metro Atlanta leaders also have seemed set on taking the cheap route – investing in bus rapid transit – rather than rail. Think the Summerhill BRT route. Some people are even proposing putting BRT on the Atlanta BeltLine. And what is the status of the all-important commuter line to Clayton County? Will that be commuter rail or BRT? Sadly, the Georgia Department of Transportation and several cities in North Fulton seem intent on investing in buses rather than expanding the MARTA rail line up Georgia 400.

Yes, BRT may be cheaper initially. But it does not have the long-term benefits of rail – which supports transit-oriented developments around stations rather than perpetuating the sprawling car culture we currently have.

The Biden administration offers metro Atlanta’s government and transportation leaders an opportunity to pivot away from BRT to rail transit.  Let’s envision how rail can carry us into the future.

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Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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2 Comments

  1. Siva May 5, 2021 1:23 am

    We still have enough time to think of MARTA instead of toll lanes along GA 400.Report

    Reply
  2. writes_of_weigh May 5, 2021 3:23 pm

    Opportunities for the federal government to invest in the railroads in exchange for utilizing their assets to move (passenger) trains? Do you mean …like when the federal. government provided land grants and additional square mile parcels in a checkerboard fashion on both sides of certain rights of way(s) while Building America and then having the same railroad a century and a half later extort over a billion(yes that’s a b) dollars to upgrade fewer than two hundred fifty miles of track between Chicago and St. Louis for “high speed” operations which after thirty years of consulting…planning…and actual workin’ n the railroad” have not yet achieved that supposed status! Locally…Norfolk Southern which seems unable to innovatively or efficiently operate Amtrak’s Crescent between Atlanta and New Orleans and vice versa….in a fashion remotely resembling near on time performance. These sorts of shenanigans once under the purview of the Interstate Commerce Commission which curiously in an anti-public interest coup(arranged and championed no less by a board member of the railroad mentioned first above as having helped “Build America” and while also serving as the nation’s Vice President) was supplanted with an entity now known as the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, or serf board as I prefer to call it(due to wide spread anti-serf feudal-like rulings….and which I believe wouldn’t recognize a passenger train were it run over.by one. Norfolk Southern’s negotiated”solution to fix the late Crescent performance? Add nearly two hours to the schedule between New Orleans and Washington D.C..As it is roumered Cornelius Vanderbilt used to chide..”the public be damned!”
    The reality is that passenger trains as we have known will NEVER be a high speed or even low speed option in this nations future until reality sets in and the public at large seeks a new mode of sub-terrainian (a la Musk tunneling) completely surface divorced high speed transport which won’t be a problem for centuries old transport methods which are no longer a solution for passenger travel and likely won’t be impeded by nimbys either!Report

    Reply

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